by John Kendall Hawkins
The System is the Solution.
– AT&T slogan circa 1970
If you look too long into the deep state, the deep state also looks into you.
– Variation of a Nietzsche cliché
Fifty years ago, from a cell in Chicago, Abbie Hoffman wrote in his introduction that “Steal This Book is, in a way, a manual of survival in the prison that is Amerika.” Infused with his infectious levity and intelligence, the book seemed to follow up on his 60s walk-the-talk credo: “Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it’s something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles.”
The Military-Industrial conspiracy that President Eisenhower theorized about to Americans as he left office in 1960, has taken over, and spread its tentacles, and turned the country into a prison — until, the only way you can determine if you have a parole in the offing any time soon is by checking your Credit Report (and even that checking is held against you).
So, the first thing Steal This Book represents is a moral and political confrontation. Steal the fucking thing. When you can set off a revolution in someone’s head — or at least make it spin — just from reading the title, and forcing the would-be reader to consider their imprisonment in the system where they and their desires exist solely to feed The Man, then you are some kind of agent provocateur.
Abbie was pssst-ing that he’s on a jailbreak and would you like to come along. Liberate the fucking thing and join him in survival mode in the wilds of freedom, the book would tell how to tunnel through — dumpster-diving is in the offing, snatching clothes from Goodwill boxes, hitchhiking across Amerika, and even enjoying the occasional fine dining — but lo! “halfway through the main course, take a little dead cockroach or a piece of glass out of your pocket and place it deftly on the plate.” Then scream bloody Mary. (And put that on the tab, too.) Abbie’s kind of theatrical democracy was being-in-the-world, or being-as-activism, not just surfing and burfing,
I was reminded of Hoffman’s Steal This Book when I began reading the recently released ‘survival manual’ A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity by Tim Schwartz. Like Abbie’s book, the title presents a concept that would rattle most people today: public service: whoa. From the circus in D.C. to the oligarchical masters we call the 1%, you’re not seeing much public service these days.
If Abbie blew the whistle loudly and often from the outside, Schwartz is calling for a sneaky insurrection from the unknown interior of the MIC that we call today the deep state (DS). In a globalized world, the DS is virtually unfathomable. Scary stuff to go up against, but A Public Service explains in great detail how to do it. “If you see something you think is wrong but don’t know how to do anything about it,” Schwartz writes in very Ralph Nader-like prose, “let this book be your guide.”
Schwartz doesn’t challenge us to steal his book — at least not explicitly — but he does admonish the would-be reader, “If you can, purchase this book anonymously or gift it to a friend anonymously.” Why? Because, in the world we inhabit and in the system we belong to, every purchase is databased, and presumably — Schwartz’s implicit warning — whoever purchases a how-to book on whistleblowing will be referred, algorithmically, to a list of potential state threats requiring further eyeballing — a disposition matrix, if you will. So, like Hoffman, Schwartz might as well be telling the would-be reader to steal the fucking book.
A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity is not just a how-to book on exposing corruption and wrong-doing; it is also a very important snapshot of our era. If Abbie was all about liberating the mind to open up a world of adventure in being and getting stuff free, Schwartz is all about “compartmentalization,” of living two lives (at least) in a System that hungers for your privacy: you need to offer up an effigy-self to keep the data-deus ex machina types at bay. Schwartz makes it very clear: If you want to whistleblow you could be risking family, career, marriage — even your life. “Frankly,” he writes, “we’re still just at the beginning of this era of privacy invasion.”
You should never judge a book by its title, but with whistleblower Edward Snowden’ s Permanent Record the reader gets as close s/he can possibly get to the soul of a narrative before actually reading it. He means it: The American government, with the help of its data-gathering 14 Eyes partners, is gathering up information on every mobile or Internet-connected individual on the planet. They have a permanent dossier on each and every one of us. Snowden writes, “We are the first people in the history of the planet for whom this is true, the first people to be burdened with data immortality, the fact that our collected records might have an eternal existence.” This is germaine to Schwartz’s world view, and cites Snowden regularly.
There are three main sections of A Public Service, roughly corresponding with the sub-title of the book: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity. In the first section, Schwartz provides a cultural and linguistic context, as well as the work (and life) of whistleblowing. Different cultures have different words and connotations. The Finns, for instance, say ilmiantaja, which suggests fink or rat. A google search of klokkenluider, from the Dutch, “evoking the idea of someone ringing the church bell to warn the town of danger.” In America, Ralph Nader gives the term whistleblowing “a meaning of moral courage.” He should know.
Though Schwartz acknowledges that Snowden meets the criteria of what he would call a ‘whistleblower’, he goes out of his way to put the emphasis on action throughout the book. He writes, “As an example, instead of saying ‘whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg,’ we might simply say, ‘Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.’” Thus, we would say, Katherine Gun, who revealed that the NSA had hit on GCHQ to gather kompromat on UN security members to blackmail into supporting the Iraq war. And, as Schwartz cites in his introduction, Peter Buxtun, who documented how a Tuskegee study on syphilis in the 60s intentionally neglected to treat African-American volunteers with the venereal disease — even though treatment was available.
With the emphasis on action rather than labels, Schwartz is hoping that a person will keep in mind the overwhelming value of the public service they are providing, rather than dwelling on how they will be perceived with the label. Whether the revelations will come from the Corporate world (Du Pont, Monsanto) or the U.S. Government (Stellar Wind, “Collateral Murder”), and no matter what the issue — sexual abuse, electoral fraud, pay-to-play, high crimes and misdemeanors — Schwartz emphasizes the importance of guarding your identity. Though it seems, at times, that whistleblowers are coming out of the woodwork all over the place, it’s important to acknowledge the malevolent partisan atmosphere that defines the political theatrics in Washington these days and the tone it sets nationally.
There is a very specific set of procedures for gathering documentation to support your proposed revelations, which, in the compartmentalized life Schwartz alludes to earlier, may involve purchasing a second computer device (say, a Tablet), staying away from SIM cards, using encryption, amping up your discretion, wearing disguises when you purchase, transacting with cash, going to free wi-fi, purchasing small denomination VISA gift cards, stalking yourself (to see what they have on you already). “You are your data,” he writes, echoing Edward Snowden in Permanent Record, and, again, “Your data will be used against you.”
Frankly, it sounds like a conspiracy theorist’s kit, in some ways, but if you choose to blow the whistle, expect to be hunted down, retaliated against, and be dealing with paranoia. One side or the other will want to get you. Compartmentalization is key. Schwartz writes, “We are in a digital arms race. The surveillants have more time, money, and power. The only way to win this war is by adopting an alternative frame of mind: compartmentalization.” I’m thinking: Joseph Conrad: “The Secret Sharer.”
This raises another crucial point: “find a partner.” Schwartz advises that it is always best to seek out the counsel of a lawyer first — but, he says, “It’s important to find a lawyer who understands the intricacies of your situation and who aligns with your ethics..” Better not just call any ol’ Saul. Another potential partner to release your documentation to is a journalist. Schwartz says you need to do your homework on a journalist. He writes, “Beyond having an understanding of the topic, a journalist partner should be able to convey the issues involved to the public. Edward Snowden was very deliberate in approaching Glenn Greenwald.”
You should be very careful in trusting someone internally, whether in the government milieu or corporate. “Once you tell someone internally,” writes Schwartz, “your anonymity and the protection that comes with it have the potential to be lost forever.” And, he adds, driving home the danger here, “In 2018, the Global Business Ethics Survey found that 40 percent of the time that an employee exposed wrongs, they were retaliated against.”
Perhaps the most difficult area of government to blow the whistle on is the one needing it the most: the Intelligence Community. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, after Trump lashed out at the IC, “Let me tell you: You take on the intelligence community — they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” Further, the only CIA whistleblower to ever go to jail for leaking, John Kirikaou, has said that IC whistleblowers are unfavorably looked upon and can expect their careers to end suddenly.
If you can accept the discretion required for partnering and the need for compartmentalization, then maybe you’re ready for the most difficult part: mastering the technology involved in keeping you and your documentation hidden and protected. Schwartz reminds, “Protecting your identity is the priority, and anonymity is the key to success.” As indicated earlier, it can require the care and dedication of having a second life. These are dangerous times for whistleblowing. Be anonymous and encrypted. Schwartz insists: “Go install Signal right now. Go install Wire right now. Try them out!” AND “Email is not a recommended communication technique!” And, by the way, make sure you tell yourself you won’t become a film star — it’s for the public service, and you may have to settle for knowing your revelations helped right a wrong.
Speaking of films, if you need or want Hollywood inspirations for pursuing the second life of whistleblowing, dozens of movies have been made on the subject.
It’s hard to tell whether this is a sign that whistleblowing works, or we’re so fucking corrupt that the best we can hope for is to see a decent movie produced from the revelations with an IMDB rating of 7 or above.
A Public Service: Whistleblowing, Disclosure and Anonymity contains a number of other sections that would prove valuable. There’s a section on Risk Assessment, where you ask yourself such questions as: “Who doesn’t want you to disclose this information? Who is your adversary?” There’s a section that suggests several starting point questions you can ask your partner once you’ve settled on one. There’s some example scenarios to coax your situation. There’s even Edward Snowden’s initial letter to Laura Poitrast to get his 2013 revelations going.
The Appendix includes a “social contract” offered to the reader, including, “In writing this book, I have tried to provide usable information on tools, techniques, and systems allowing the reader to be anonymous, private, and secure.” AND “I will never intentionally harm you, the reader.” All of this nice and reassuring, but unnecessary. In fact, it might even be a little disturbing that a writer feels the need to assure us he’s not out to fuck with us.
It’s an excellent book for the task it sets itself. Sane, sober advice. No jokes, no sarcasm. The book not only tells you how to prepare and succeed as a whistleblower, but gives a heapin’ helpin’ of sage advice. If you’re going to be a critical thinker in the current era, guard your privacy and integrity with your life: beware the eyes all around you and the shivs sheathed (shhh) but ready everywhere. As in the film Network, a whistleblowing about the MSM’s endless blatherscheissen, we should all be mad as hell now, with our heads out our windows, and whistling madly that we’re not gonna take it any more.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
-from The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon
When you think about it, after 9/11, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush did Americans a favor by “taking off the gloves,” so that we could wring our hands to the toll for freedom in the upcoming dark battle against Terror and Reality-based thinking. Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, we thought, it tolls for Us. The torture trills and flourishes that followed, poor Abu rolling over in his shallow Ghraib, and the mad scientists brought in to offer up new, frightful concepts in torture, such as waterboarding, were the American equivalent of Chinese drip-drip-driven insanity, but, in our shock and aweful style, we wrung out the entire black cloud — the whole inshallalah — on one tormented “terrorist” after another.
We video-taped the “enhanced interrogations techniques” (EIT), but later destroyed the tapes, much to Congress’s quiet chagrin, because they would have shown that the methods were excessive and the results meaningless. Later, much later, in 2014, Senator Diane Feinstein’s intelligence committee found that EIT were ineffective — and consequently illegal. (See the Senate’s The Torture Report and the recent film, for more details on the committee findings, and CIA head John Brennan’s illegal attempts to quash the report by spying on the Senate.) In effect, her committee found, we tortured some terrorists who provided no valuable information, and tortured many, many others who turned out to be not terrorists at all. We rang dem bells some more.
The only CIA officer who ever went to jail for revealing the excesses of EIT, John Kirikaou, admitted, in a 2007 interview (pages 15-18 especially) with ABC’s Brian Ross, that enhanced interrogation “amounted to” torture, and that he and colleagues thought it “necessary at the time,” and that “it worked,” leading, he said, to countless heads-up details that led to Jack Bauer-like last minute interventions in new al Qaeda plots. It almost sounded like an apologist’s gambit.
Kirikaou went to jail, became dubbed a whistleblower (by the likes of Glenn Greenwald), and was in jail when the Torture Report came out — and contradicted his assertions about the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation. (He’d known about its ineffectiveness a year or so before his 2007 ABC News interview. In February 2015, he told Amy Goodman, “It wasn’t until something like 2005 or 2006 that we realized that that just simply wasn’t true—[it] wasn’t producing any information—and that these techniques were horrific.” So, he knew a year or so before the Ross interview). Despite this apparent contradiction, and its implications, the MSM were supportive of his ‘conversation starter’ about EIT — especially waterboarding.
Reading Stephen Kinzer’s new book, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, you could find yourself believing that there were parallel Americas. The list of grisly murders, lethal cover-ups, assassination mindedness, and graphic details of super-enhanced interrogation techniques that made up the CIA’s approach to handling the Fifties demonstrate unequivocally that the gloves were off way before Dick Cheney publicly stated the Bush administration’s intended approach to those that done us harm on 9/11. If anything, Kinzer shows in Poisoner in Chief, that, by comparison, Cheney may have put the gloves back on to fight al Qaeda. The stuff Kinzer details about CIA operations, especially in the Sydney Gottlieb era, is so depraved you wonder if you’ve been conned by Bush and company.
Americans have been in a cold war with Russians since 1949, the year they successfully exploded an atom bomb of their own and the nuclear arms race began. It has been a relationship powered by fear, paranoia, and not a little madness, as America sees her ambition to be an empire partially checked by Russia and her potent missiles. If Kinzer’s read of the Fifties was accurate, it was an era marked, for Americans (and maybe the Soviets) by the terror of instant nuclear annihilation. There were fall-out shelters, procedures for hiding under your desk, and the occasional TV and radio transmission interruptions by the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). Kinzer repeatedly emphasizes that this fear of annihilation was so often proffered as the motivation for the actions early covert operators.
George Orwell’s 1948 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was not only a look to the future but a pulse-taking of his zeitgeist. The Spanish Civil War and the Great Depression sandwiched between two world wars crushed the spirits of millions. The kind of nihilistic impulses described by Erich Fromm in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness or even in The Waste Land poetry of T.S. Eliot seemed manifest everywhere. Ideologies duked it out: Capitalism, Communism, and Fascism. Out of one nation fearing another’s impulses, weapons of mass destruction had evolved — from brute force to chemical weapons to biological weapons to LSD and other psychoactives to nuclear weapons. This is what was on the minds of writers, politicians, soldiers, and the CIA, back in the day.
So when the Soviets exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949 and then followed that up with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, American spies felt that they were dealing with a race against time. They started gathering German scientists, Nazi eugenicists, Japanese torturers, and others of twisted scientific persuasion who could lead military programs — especially in mind control. Kinzer cites CIA director Allen Dulles’ mission statement as the basis for what the agency did:
By the early 1950s he had concluded that mind control could be the decisive weapon of the coming age…Any nation that discovered ways to manipulate the human psyche, he believed, could rule the world.
The CIA has always wanted to rule the world in the name of ‘national security’.
Operation Paperclip was the means by which totally unpalatable scientists — mostly from Nazi Germany — were allowed to escape post-war justice at Nuremberg, in order to help the Cold War effort against the Soviets. So, what was supposed to be a patriotic fervor to keep Mama America safe for baking apple pies, soon led to the recruitment of war criminals.
Most prominently, from Nazi Germany, came Kurt Blome, who had been director of the Nazi biological warfare program. Kinzer writes,
They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals, and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp [especially Dachau] in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche.
He fit right in with Dulles’s vision. Their thinking was, writes Kinzer, “instead of hanging Blome, let’s hire him.”
But the most important decision Dulles made regarding his desire to find a way to reach his Mission Accomplished goal was to hire Sydney Gottlieb to run his research and development umbrella program in mind control. As head of the Technical Services Staff headquartered at Fort Detrick in Maryland, Gottlieb coordinated the hundreds of myriad sub-projects and experiments that made up the notorious MK-ULTRA program. Though many twisted details would eventually be disseminated about the doings of these experiments, Gottlieb himself was regarded as a quiet and unassuming man. Kinzer describes him: “[He was] a psychic voyager, far from anyone’s stereotype of the career civil servant. His home was an eco-lodge in the woods with outdoor toilets and a vegetable garden. He meditated, wrote poetry, and raised goats.”
Nevertheless, one of the first things that Gottlieb did was to not only hire Nazi scientists, but head East, to Japan, to confer (and hire) General Shiro Ishii, a possibly criminally insane Japanese army surgeon who had headed Unit 731, a horror camp in Manchuria, where Ishii went to work on internees. Kinzer describes prisoners
slowly roasted by electricity…hung upside down…locked into high-pressure chambers until their eyes popped out; spun in centrifuges infected with anthrax, syphilis, plague, cholera, and other diseases; forcibly impregnated to provide infants for vivisection; bound to stakes to be incinerated by soldiers testing flamethrowers; and slowly frozen to observe the progress of hypothermia.
Blome and Ishii were model types of the vision the CIA sought in order to gain an edge on similar Russian experimenters looking to create ‘Manchurian candidates’.
Black sites, East and West, were set up, where “expendables” were brought to be mercilessly and brutally tortured, sometimes in such ways that they could not be identified as humans anymore. These sites were intentionally beyond US accountability, not set up to interrogate terrorists but to experiment on the mind. Such experiments were not carried out only overseas, but, also, stateside people were unknowing participants in CIA miscreance.
Project Bluebird, for instance, called for an ‘experiment’ on everyone in San Francisco. Kinzer describes how a psychiatric team performed Operation Sea Spray:
scientists from Camp Detrick directed the spraying of a bacterium called Serratia marcescens into the coastal mist. According to samples taken afterward at forty-three sites, the spraying reached all of San Francisco’s 800,000 residents and also affected people in Oakland, Berkeley, Sausalito, and five other cities.
Scores of people had to seek help at a hospital, a few people died from toxic reactions, but these psychiatric scientists proved that the Bay Area was vulnerable to germ warfare. Just in case anyone was wondering.
Gottlieb kept adding shadier characters to perform more and more outrageous tasks, in his effort to nail down how humans tick, deep down inside. But nobody was shadier than ex-cop George Hunter White, who, writes Kinzer, stood out “even in the dazzling MK-ULTRA cast of obsessed chemists, coldhearted spymasters, grim torturers, hypnotists, electroshockers, and Nazi doctors.” Gottlieb had him open up a “safe house” in Greenwich Village where he lured unsuspecting expendables and others to parties where they could be doused with LSD for study (think: the psychedelic scene from Midnight Cowboy). In 1949, he arrested Billie Holiday for opium possession, which she claimed was “planted” and which put her through an “ordeal” that Kinzer says led to “her decline toward early death.” He later worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Later, White was transferred back to his hometown of San Francisco, where he expanded on his doings in Greenwich Village, starting up a safe house that added the full gamut of sex acts to LSD studies, including Operation Midnight Climax. He leaned toward fascist leathers and stilettos and provided prostitutes with “get out of jail free” assurances for assisting in the experiments. There were kundalini-driven orgies, whips and chains, acid trips, and gentle Gottlieb with White’s wife, “humping her brains out,” while he recovered from tripping.
Gottlieb was originally employed as a master chemist. But the mild-mannered meditator also had a covert killer side to him. Kinzer describes the Poisoner-in-Chief’s hand in the assassination of world leaders. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai escaped one of Gottlieb’s plots with a last-minute change of plans. Gottlieb was put in charge of killing Cuban leader Fidel Castro with poison, both directly (cigars) and indirectly (causing his beard to fall out so he’d ‘lose face’ with his people). He was involved in the takedown of Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, personally concocting a poison that “ if it didn’t kill Lumumba outright,” writes Kinzer, “would leave him so disfigured that he couldn’t possibly be a leader.” Lumumba managed to evade the poison, but was eventually assassinated by the more traditional firing squad.
And the craziest characters kept joining his subprojects. At McGill University in Montreal, Dr. James Hebb studied “the isolation technique [that] could break any man, no matter how intelligent or strong-willed.” In another subproject he brought Ira Feldman, a master of “old-fashioned” interrogation techniques who observed, “If it was a girl, you put her tits in a drawer and slammed the drawer [and if] it was a guy, you took his cock and you hit it with a hammer. And they would talk to you. Now, with these drugs, you could get information without having to abuse people.” Feldman was welcomed with open arms.
In New York, John Mulholland, a professional magician who’d worked with Houdini, joined MK-Ultra subproject 4, taught sleight of hand and misdirection to the CIA, and even developed a manual for them, The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception. The crazies and subprojects of MK-ULTRA just kept piling up. Under Subprojects 9 and 26, Gottlieb studied ways that “various depressant drugs” can shake a person’s psyche…Subproject 28 was to test “depressants” ..Subproject 47 would “screen and evaluate hallucinogens,” Subproject 124 tested whether inhaling carbon dioxide could lead people into a trance-like state, and Subproject 140 tested the psychoactive effects of “thyroid-related hormones.”
It wasn’t until Dr. Harold Wollf came along in 1954 that CIA methods took a turn toward the ‘ways and means’ we wring our hands over today. Wollf had treated Dulles’s son – a soldier who’d suffered a significant shrapnel injury to his brain. “Wolff shared Dulles’s fascination with the idea of mind control,” writes Kinzer. Wollf headed up the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. He proposed placing subjects in inescapable situations that eroded their psyches to the point where, desperate to escape,
doctors could “create psychological reactions within them.”…to test “special methods of interrogation, including “threats, coercion, imprisonment, isolation, deprivation, humiliation, torture, ‘brainwashing,’ ‘black psychiatry, ’hypnosis, and combinations of these with or without chemical agents.
Hello, Gitmo. Hello, Abu Ghraib.
Gottlieb’s reputation for dark art intrigues was at its height in 1953 when CIA operative, Frank Olson, suffering from acute anxiety and having reportedly confided to a colleague that “he’d made a big mistake” being part of MK-ULTRA, either fell or dove from the 10th floor of the Statler Hotel in New York. MK-ULTRA almost went down with Olson. Was he heave-hoed out the window by CIA bouncers, or did he somehow somnambulate through a closed curtain and plate glass window? It was a mystery that investigative journalist Sy Hersh looked in to and opined that, based upon uncorroborated information he’d been made privy to, Olson was murdered. A 2017 six-part Netflix series — Wormwood — was produced and does an excellent job of recreating the vibe of the 50s and the somewhat hallucinogenic event.
In the end, as unfriendly changes and unwanted scrutiny took place at the CIA in the wake of changing times, Gottlieb retired. And he and his wife travelled by freighter to India where they volunteered at a leper’s colony. Did he spend much time, in retirement, recalling his Jewish roots? Maybe thinking, there but for the grace of God (his name suggests ‘love of God’) might my Hungarian Jewish parents have gone — and me with them — into some death camp, where I might have been ‘done’ by Nazis in ways very similar to the methods I myself employed? We’ll never know. Even the Congressional hearings that called him back from India to account for his MK-ULTRA doings don’t suggest much rueful ruminations. He was essentially a Holocaust Denying Jew. Netanyahu would have called him “a self-loathing Jew,” then hired him to mow lawns, in new ways, on the West Bank, returning at night to his leafy kibbutz.
So, what’s the future of mind control? Kinzer doesn’t speculate much. But it’s clear, without a lot of thinking, that the more we humans become addicted to the honey of the Internet’s hive mindedness, we become more vulnerable. Edward Snowden has already warned about the mere collection of dossiers (Permanent Records) on every person connected. But there is also the risk of ‘contagions’ brought on by manipulations of algorithms and newsfeeds. Think of the online white blood cell mobbing of Joseph Kony back in 2012 that created a massive fever to capture the black cancerous leader of child soldiers, only for the fervor to die suddenly, when it was discovered he hadn’t been in the country of intended capture — for years.
Gottlieb is said to have abandoned his pursuit of the Grail for mind control in the end. But there is no question that the dark Quest to control minds is still active, as there are still Rove-Cheney-Bush type people out there who believe, as Allen Dulles did, that “Any nation that discovered ways to manipulate the human psyche…could rule the world.” And, ‘we are an Empire now’.
We are in the middle of a new brain warfare, as Kinzer puts it, without knowing it, because these manipulations and brain hacks are kept from us. As Kinzer suggests,
The target of this warfare is the minds of men on a collective and on an individual basis. Its aim is to condition the mind so that it no longer reacts on a free will or rational basis, but a response to impulses implanted from outside … it is proving malleable in the hands of sinister men.
We are the “black sites” of future interrogations, by machine-like men, who, if they have their way, will not be out to make AI androids of the future more human, but, rather, humans more machine-like. It might be as simple as a tiny gizmo implanted in the brain to take the free will away and leave us open to the programming of remote, sinister forces.
Think about it.
Book Review: Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World by Belén Fernández
By John Kendall Hawkins
Domestically, there was the Homeland Securitization of everything…the steady erosion of civil liberties, the very liberties we were allegedly fighting to protect. The cumulative damage—the malfeasance in aggregate—was staggering to contemplate and felt entirely irreversible, and yet we were still honking our horns and flashing our lights in jubilation.
- Edward Snowden, Permanent Record
At the end of his court martial for treason, the fictional character, Lieutenant Philip Nolan, was asked if he had anything to say to the court before sentencing. Rashly, he blurted out, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” A stunned judge granted his wish and Nolan became the legendary ex-pat described in the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale. He was condemned to live at sea his remaining days (56 years) without ever again being vouchsafed a single word of his beloved country. The teary tale of patriotism was required reading back in the elementary days when it was also mandatory to stand-up (no knees) for a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, right hand across the heart.
I thought of Nolan’s plight as I read Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the World, Belén Fernández’s travelogue, beefed up with op-ed riffs on local and global politics. It’s not an easy comparison; there are many complicating factors to their respective exiles — beginning with the fact that Nolan’s is involuntary (he really didn’t mean what he shouted), while Fernández leaves thoughtfully rejecting America.
The other thing they have in common is that their views on American militarism are not welcome by the mainstream patriots of their times. Nolan’s “treason” was that he had spoken out for peace during the Civil War, at a time when the Union was having difficulty recruiting soldiers, while Fernández openly rejects the War on Terror and its rootedness in what she regards as a drive for world domination
It was a view her parents shared, too, ditching America for Spain, once they got past their “mercifully brief…patriotic sentiment” and came to realize that, after the bellicose presidency of G.W.Bush, “the ensuing reign of Obama—the king of drone strikes, deportations, and other damage” was just more of the same. There was no real difference in the policies of Republicans and Democrats. Fernández’s dad, once settled into Barcelona, spends time writing postcards to the warmongers of the Middle East — “Beelzebub” (Obama) and “Mephistopheles” (Netanyahu), which probably put him on at least a couple of watchlists.
Early in Exile, Fernández makes clear her disdain for American-style hypocrisy — its willingness to force its brand of Exceptionalism, an olio of neoconservative militarism married to debt-inducing neoliberalism, while allowing its own domestic policy-making to so erode confidence in the American Dream that the country entered social and economic crises, so catastrophic that citizens risked everything to elect a populist clown as president. As Fernández puts it,
Lest folks start to view the state itself as public enemy number one, however, more convenient menaces are regularly trotted out. In addition to the usual domestic suspects—blacks, poor people, immigrants, and so on—the wider world has proved fertile terrain for the manufacture of any number of freedom-imperiling demons.
They say, ‘America, love it or leave it’: She left.
But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love America — it’s just that, like Nolan, her voice goes against the grain of the times, her tone sounding treasonous (see Susan Sontag) in the ongoing narrative of vigilance against terrorism at any cost, even if the price is compromised freedom. Fernández grew up hearing her fair share of soldierly tales of foreign deployment in the service of setting people free. Her grandfather “facilitated patriotic assimilation by joining the armed forces, thanks to which he was able to participate in not only the D-Day landings at Normandy but also the Korean and Vietnam wars.” And she has a brother who was in Special Forces who discovered through tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria that he liked to kill Arabs.
However, she really takes after her journalist father — she, too, writes op-eds (for Jacobin magazine) that question the motivations of various heads of state. She also seems to carry his romanticism. He reads and re-reads Don Quixote, resulting in a memoir that took 17 years to complete. One can see how Fernández’s travels seem quixotic, although, rather than chasing after windmills, she tends toward tracking down the nearest winebar, with her sidekick Polish-American friend, Amelia.
In her travels with Amelia through Lebanon, Turkey, and Italy, Fernández’s quirky humor is especially effective in painting a droll picture of her locale or situation. While hitchhiking she discovers “some damn fine people,” and “Relatively rare was the occasion on which we had to leap out of a moving vehicle to thwart molestation….” And when things did go bad that way, luckily they went comically bad, such as the time when hitchhiking near the Black Sea, they were picked up by a drunken Turkish doctor, who brought them to a remote locale, then got aggressive and chased them, “leaving us no choice but to hide dramatically beside a stream—facedown—until the coast was clear.”
She has a flair for describing scenes that can seem comically self-indulgent, such as when she writes of jogging, “clad in a hideous pileup of sweaters, scarves, and socks,” through the mortar-pocked streets of snowy Sarajevo which remind her of “the siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s.” She ends up in an apartment “not far from the bridge where the 1914 assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand sparked World War I,” being attended to by a girl who teaches her “essential Bosnian words like ‘wine,’ ‘spinach-and-cheese pie,’ and ‘catastrophe.’” It’s an attractive observational humor.
Similarly, when she writes “ …Italy may not always be the most helpful society on the planet—witness the boatloads of refugees left to drown in recent years by the Italian coast guard—the ubiquity of cheap wine made it a suitable spot to sit out the inaugural year of the War on Terror…,”one pictures a blogger sitting at a cafe table overlooking the sea, getting their post in for the day, while people drown — all recalling the tone of W. C. Wiliams’ Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (“a splash quite unnoticed”). Her arch, but jocular attitude seems like the right approach for a disgusted, opinionated feminist turning her back on America’s fatwa against the Shia world.
In Lebanon, Fernández’s passions are aroused by the politics of the region and her meeting up with a Palestinian-Lebanese character named Hassan. “Amelia and I first met Hassan,” she recalls, “while hitchhiking in Lebanon shortly after Israel’s 2006 assault—not to be confused with Israel’s 1978, 1982, 1993, or 1996 assaults, or its 22-year occupation of the southern part of the country.” She talks with Hassan and discovers that he’s a kind of jack-of-all-trades — a hustler after mysterious scams, a bus guide for refugees, a blackmailer, a poor man’s private eye, and a car rental agent in Tyre (“former stomping ground of Alexander the Great”). He needs a bride to obtain an American passport to visit relatives, he says, in Israel; she obliges, but eschews “the premarital virginity test.”
Fernández has significant animus for the seemingly unrepentant fascism of some Israeli policies, especially when it comes to Palestinians. She notes Israel’s bombing of roads and bridges, and discusses Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon; its management by the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA). And, no doubt, Hassan’s tales of loss amplify her empathetic rage: He has “lost three sisters, who had been killed by Israel, a sniper, and a car, respectively.” As Fernández and Amelia accompany Hassan, and his pal Mo, on “the high-speed running of unspecified errands in the rubble of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs,” you get the feeling he’s on a watchlist somewhere. And she could be playing Ilsa to Victor Laszlo’s resistance fighter — drones overhead be damned, she has her own sassy hellfire.
Fernández is generally unimpressed with Lebanon. She finds the government useless: “[T]he Lebanese state doesn’t do jack shit for the majority of its own population—some of whom have been known to contend with a mere two hours of government electricity per day, [and] the near-total lack of affordable health care options or other basic needs.” Syrian and Palestinian refugees are marginalized. Meanwhile, the elite bronze themselves at Zaitunay Bay, content to think of Lebanon as “the Paris of the Middle East,” and keen to keep the masses, and their needs, suppressed. It’s a theme she will find everywhere she goes.
Fernández arrived in Honduras a month before the ‘pajama coup’ of President Manuel Zelaya in the wee hours of June 28, 2009. Zelaya was flown to Costa Rica — illegally — and, effectively, exiled from Honduras. Zelaya had tried to introduce “a nonbinding public opinion survey” meant to gauge voter interest in future constitutional reform. The Supreme Court found the survey illegal and told Zelaya to cease. He refused and was ordered arrested for treason. But many outside observers, including the UN and the OAS, saw it as a coup — including Fernández:
…Zelaya had stepped on the toes of the entrenched Honduran oligarchy, whose members had long ago pledged allegiance to the predatory capitalism endorsed by their benefactors in the United States.
The elites at work again.
Months later she interviews Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the general who’d led the coup, a fatter, more fatuous version of Captain Renault. He gets all gleeful relating how he once “saw” Jennifer Lopez; they talk the zaniness of Honduran politics; and then:
“Vásquez warned,’there will always be people who want to attain power through ways other than the proper way of being elected’—although it was not clear that he had fully thought through the implications of this line of reasoning given that he himself had just perpetrated a coup.”
She listens to him liken Honduran security forces to “armed cherubs” and say that the real problem is there’s “too much freedom.” After the interview, he ‘sees’ her and says “he wouldn’t mind a second wife.”
In keeping with her family tradition, Fernández makes an effort to castigate the US response to the removal of Zelaya — their refusal to call it an official coup because, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time, a coup would require cutting off US aid to Honduras. Fernández regards this as merely protecting America’s elitist friends, the same friends, she says, who were so cooperative with the CIA during the drug-trafficking Contra years. Later, under pressure, the US does cut off some aid — to works projects — while continuing to gift the security forces millions of dollars.
And on and on it goes, everywhere she goes: the wretched of the earth providing her with reminders of the salving touch of abiding humanity, while male authoritiy figures fuck up — hungry-like-a-wolf male gazes, unassisted drowning refugees, machine-gunned Kurds, Monsanto-driven farmer suicides in India…. Fernández seems to cope with it all by drinking massive amounts of cheap wine and blogging about it for Jacobin. The turmoil she thought she left behind when she rejected America and went into “exile” follows her everywhere, as effect follows cause.
And if that weren’t dismaying enough, she’s got a hang-up about New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s “imperial lapdog” justifications of bad American foreign policy. Fernández had taken issue with his description of “bikini-clad Lebanese women leaving little to the imagination” as a vulgar deflection from the awful reality for most people there.
But when Friedman describes himself in a column as an “environmentalist,” that’s when Rolling Stones journalist Matt Taibbi is trotted in for a cameo take-down:
Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a “Green Revolution”?
For Fernández, as with Taibbi (and so many others), the NYT columnist represents all that’s wrong with the integrity of the Fourth Estate in America. Subservience in the suburbience. Never risk your comfort zone.
Belén Fernández quotes James Baldwin at the beginning of her travelogue — “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition” — but you wish she’d said more. Baldwin lived for years in Paris, and wrote a lot of his best work there, ‘unhappy in his skin’ back in America. Every Black man in America is an exile, the true legacy of slavery.
Fernández spends 15 years as an expat, leaving clothing markers everywhere (it comes across a bit like a Wind Song ad, frankly). Her conclusion is inconclusive, as is her idea of what ‘home’ has come to mean. She ends by talking about sciroccos in Puglia and “the desire to suspend one’s entire existence until the wind had blown its course,” making one wonder if that’s not what her exile amounts to.
She’s been described as a Martha Gellhorn, but I think ‘intrepid blogger’ is a better description. She does one thing that all Americans should be required to do: live in the moccasins of foreign cultures for awhile, before you remotely drone them. Exile is an excellent book to read on the plane over for a slumming summer abroad.
In fact it seems to me quite possible that the 1960s represented the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished. That this is the beginning of the rest of the future, now, and that from now on there will simply be all these robots walking around, feeling nothing, thinking nothing.
– My Dinner with Andre (1981) by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
Consciousness comes in all kinds of flavors — political, ecological, historical, psychological, etc. Even an awareness of unconsciousness can be a kind of consciousness, such as when we refer to, say, the archetypal realm of the Collective Unconscious, which is a kind of consciousness of gene-level symbolism. In fact, a good place for understanding what consciousness is may start with what it isn’t — unconsciousness. I guess it depends on what your definition of isn’t isn’t.
A few years ago I was in a coma for a week. I was an Isn’t — and yet I was. (Kinda like that catchy Donovan song.) While the functions of my biology were artificially maintained by machines, my brain activity had flat-lined. My consciousness slowly returned, and I came out of a void, without emotions, doing my best imitation of Lazarus. What did I bring back with me — Light at the end of questioning tunnels? Myopic insight into the realms of the beyond? Nothing. I brought back nothing. A week had been cut from my life, no memories, no resonances, no nothing. If that was death, then there is no Inferno, Purgatorio, or Beatrice. However, I regained full “consciousness,” as far as I am aware.
So, consciousness requires you to be awake and aware, and then you go from there. The world opens up before you and you read it, experience it, with your agenda, your style, your orientation, within the context of the circumstances that govern your milieu. Consciousness. How would you approach the question? Well, I tried taking the online Jung Typology Type test — that proved to be uncannily accurate, in some respects. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of what consciousness is, but it does provide some insight into what filters you might use in your approach, and puts you in the starting “subjective” position to relate to the “objective” world. The ol’ In/Out of experience.
Arguably, an understanding of consciousness has never been more important to humanity as we creep further into what may be the final frontier: artificial intelligence (AI) and the so-called Singularity. Certainly it’s a frontier that Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks are fully cognizant of as they work their way, two guys talking, through Dialogues on Consciousness. In the preamble to their opening chapter, Parks writes, “Hardly a day goes by without some in-depth article wondering whether computers can be conscious, whether our universe is some kind of simulation, whether the mind is a unique quality of human beings or spread out across the universe like butter on bread.” Manzotti and Parks make it clear rather quickly: This is not your father’s Consciousness.
The authors both live and work in Milan, and while they come from distinctly different backgrounds, they share a fascination with consciousness.. Riccardo Manzotti teaches Psychology of Perception at IULM University. He has a PhD in Robotics and specializes in AI, perception, and consciousness. Dialogues on Consciousness is a follow-up to his study of 2017, The Spread Mind, in which he lays out his philosophy of externalism — a belief that the mind is not just the brain or functions of the brain. Tim Parks is a prize-winning novelist and essayist. He has also put out a non-fiction meditation on consciousness, Out of Mind: On the Trial of Consciousness.
As I followed their dialogue in the book, I was reminded of the pair, Wallace Shawn (Parks) and Andre Gregory (Manzotti) from My Dinner with Andre. The dinner pair’s discussion anticipates many of the issues that trouble humanity today — especially the effects of science and technology. It’s a great philosophical film, part of the Criterion Collection (so you know it’s been vetted), and you can well imagine how the two might actually have sat down for dinner one time and wrote the screenplay while eating knishes and noshes in Soho.
While Manzotti and Parks provide plenty of food-for-thought in Dialogues on Consciousness, their discussion is not saturated in existential angst and ennui the way it is for Shawn and Gregory. It’s more of a straight-up cerebral set of conversations about the mind. However, it is a scripted exercise in which each chapter of the book represents a “session” for the day. It’s a cumulative process, each of the 15 days, or chapters, building on the last. Parks acts mostly as a kind of good-natured set-up guy for Manzotti’s project on Externalism. Their dialogues have the feel of having been recorded in a university department office, a coffee plunger between them.
For the most part, except for Manzotti’s Externalism, most of the philosophy discussed (and/or referenced) is familiar ground to anyone with a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts. Thus, there are mentions of Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ Cogito, Bishop Berkeley’s If A Tree Falls in the Forest problem, B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorism, et alis. Later, when sufficient dialogical momentum has built more modern philosophers are introduced. Manzotti has a particular hair across his ass for Australian philosopher David Chalmers and his ‘internalism’ — a position that sees all operations of the mind as processes of neurons and brain chemicals.
What’s inside the mind? What’s outside? What is the difference, if any, between subjects and objects? These are the familiar questions raised in Dialogues on Consciousness. Manzotti and Parks want to wake up the sleeper cells of dogmatism that may have been snoring since the undergraduate years, in order to accompany the pair as they discuss Externalism. It can get hairy (remember Woody Allen’s Love and Death?), but the pair expect that the reader possesses the skills necessary to understand.
Despite millenia of moonful ponderings by the best minds evolution has flowered, Riccardo Manzotti is not ready to accept that an understanding of consciousness is a given. “For most people ‘consciousness’ will have various meanings and include awareness, self-awareness, thinking in language,” he tells Parks in the opening chapter, “but for philosophers and neuroscientists the crucial meaning is that of feeling something, having a feeling you might say, or an experience.” It is this ‘experience’ — the relationship between the subject and an object — that is key to understanding Manzotti’s thesis, and he feels it is far from a settled project. “The truth is that we do not know what consciousness is,” he posits.
As Manzotti sees it, scientists are snobby and regard fellow humans as “trapped … watching shadows on the wall, while reality is outside, beyond [their] grasp,” a la Plato’s Cave. So that, in the latter day version, when some nerdy Socrates returns from the “real” world to the Cave to announce — “Multiverses are everywhere! Come see!” — one feminist looks up from her read of the Guardian and groans; the male next to her goes back to gazing at his porn; all the others, but one, are glued to El Camino, and that one hands Socrates a vial of hemlock, saying,”Fuck off.” Socrates eschews (gesundheit) the vial, and traipses, like some 3D Ezekiel, back to the coggy wheels of reality.
The elitism suggested by the Allegory persisted all the way to Descartes and his Cogito — the notion that there’s an In and Out of experience. As the two put it:
Parks: It really does seem impossible to think about consciousness without falling back at some point into this Cartesian view, the real world out there and a representation of it in the head.
Manzotti: You can see why everyone is willing to give so much credit to the neuroscientists, or just scientists in general, hoping they will come up with something that will solve the dilemma, some as yet unknown aspect of the material world that will explain why consciousness is indeed in the head, but has nevertheless managed to remain invisible up to now.
But Manzotti rejects such Internalism, and doesn’t believe science will ever crack the nut of consciousness.
There’s an operational or even mechanistic aspect of the Internalist argument than seems to offend Manzotti. You can see this most clearly in the so-called Computer Model of the human mind that likens the processes of the brain to the functions of a computer. We are processors with long (hard drive) and short-term memory (RAM). We ‘keyboard’ our experiences and watch the results of old and new data come together on the monitor of our minds. As Manzotti puts it, “Words like ‘input,’ ‘output,’ ‘code,’ ‘encoding,’ and ‘decoding’ abound. It all sounds so familiar, as if we knew exactly what was going on.” But Manzotti senses dangerous implications (and applications) as we move forward into AI with our mechanistic assumptions about human consciousness.
As mentioned earlier, the Internalist views of Australian philosopher David Chalmers are especially irksome to Manzotti. He is, says Manzotti, “the man who more than any other has determined the way in which we think about consciousness for the last twenty years.” And not in a helpful way. For Chalmers, it’s all a movie-house-in-the-mind (neurons supplying the popcorn) — and there is no out there. But it’s hard to pin Chalmers’ views down with precision. Seethes Manzotti, “Chalmers has dabbled with panpsychism, dualism, emergentism, physicalism, Russellian monism, and even computationalism.” (“That’s a lot of -isms,” chimes Parks.) In essence, Chalmers seems to be all over the place.
But it’s Chalmers’ presumptuousness that seems to drive Manzotti up around the bend. His own Mind-Object externalism is diametrically opposed to what Chalmers stands for:
Essentially, when Chalmers so dramatically announced “the hard problem,” insisting that we had no solution to the question of consciousness, he simultaneously assumed that the constraints governing any enquiry into it were already well defined and unassailable.
Chalmers seems almost arrogant — does he think he’s the only one who can crack the Hard Problem? Bring it over, Manzotti seems to say to Chalmers.
So, if Manzotti rejects Internalism, including the movie house model and the neurons-and-brain-chemistry model, while at the same time he rejects that there’s an external world that is removed from the experience of consciousness, then what does he argue? For Manzotti, it’s pretty easy, and can be summed up: When I see an apple on a table, I am the apple. In short, there’s not an internal subject observing an external object. Rather, in the moment of perception they merge and are one. Manzotti provides further explication here.
Even Parks, who has a background in Consciousness himself, is seemingly a-reel at this metaphysical development:
Parks: So I am the apple.
Manzotti: Of course that sounds absurd because you identify your conscious self, the subject, the I, with your body, and your body is clearly not the apple. But what if I were to say that the very idea of consciousness was invented to explain how you could experience an apple when there is no apple in your head? So we have to have this consciousness apple.
This sounds sensible, although one wonders ‘who’ did the inventing.
While he garners no more than a mention in Dialogues, Manzotti does seem to support the thesis put forth by Princeton professor Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. This bicameral approach posits that, long ago, in ancient days, the right side of the brain dialogued with the left (two hems talking), in a manner descriptive of modern voice-hearing schizophrenia (the ancient gods being a product of this bicameralism) — until a breakdown of that system led to a unified consciousness. Fascinating, as Spock would say.
But perhaps the best help for visualizing Manzotti’s concept comes from the aesthetic realm (which Manzotti largely ignores at his peril). French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty in describing a painter’s vision comes very close to bringing Manzottis’ apple concept to life. In “Eye and Mind”, M-P writes, “Since things and my body are made of the same stuff, vision must somehow come about in them; or yet again, their manifest visibility must be repeated in the body by a second visibility.” (One recalls Carl Sagan’s amazing observation: “We are star stuff.”) And there’s no question that Manzotti and Parks would agree with M-P’s assertion, “Science manipulates things and gives up living in them.” It’s this “living in” that humans are capable of and machines are not.
In the end, it’s the ol’ In-Out, or as Manzotti and Parks explain it:
Parks: Essentially, you’re turning everything inside out. The experience I thought was inside is outside.
Manzotti: That’s the idea. Look at the world, and you’ll find yourself. Look inside your experience, and you find… what? The world that surrounds your body.
It’s not a paradigm shift, but it’s a welcome alternative view to the operationalism that currently prevails. Kinda like the White Album.
If Google’s recent pronouncement that they’ve had a breakthrough in quantum computing is any indicator of the shape of things to come, then we’ve already entered a strange new world, where we can use all of the thinking about consciousness that we can conjure up. Let’s not leave the future to the likes of Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt and the visions they pitch, such as the weird scenario they offered up in The New Digital Age (originally titled The Empire of the Mind). Talking about the future of entertainment and holograph boxes you could set up in your living room, they ask us to imagine, “Worried your kids are becoming spoiled? Have them spend some time wandering around the Dharavi slum in Mumbai.” Hmph.
Dialogues on Consciousness is a short easy collection of sessional dialogues. It would be a good book to bring on a long train or plane journey. You might find all those Philosophy 101 thought-experiments reactivating in you and casually preparing you for Manzotti and Parks’ near-quantum paradigm-thinking — about you and apples. You might try to recall how you answered Bishop Berkeley’s query: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Before you fall into a comatose sleep, and wake up hours later, suddenly…
By John Kendall Hawkins
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
- The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966), inspired by Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead
I was recklessly musing about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and how, there but for the disgrace of God, and Barack Obama, they would have gone to Ecuador and been on the lam, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — legends in a lot of minds, including their own. But now, with Lenin on the loose, they would have seen la caca hitting el abanico in Quito and thought: Yanquis have arrived to abbotabad us and we must huyeron por todos lados. In other words more familiar, Butch and Sundance panicked, and hied to hide in the jungle of writhing anacondas. “That way,” pointed a future ‘espalda mojada’ (wetback), seizing a proffered C-note from the nice Machine-Gun Man with No Eyes. The chase was on.
Recently, I butched and sundanced my way through the thickets and vines of When Plants Dream by Daniel Pinchbeck and Sophia Rokhlin, until I came to what I was looking for in the clearing of an appendix: The How-to of cooking up some ayahuasca stew and of determining if it’s right for you. I mostly enjoyed the narrative trek through vistas I might never have considered — histories, cultures, exotic rituals of the Amazon — and their depiction of the shamanistic plant culture revealed and the return of the psychedelic experience to the mainstream.
Coincidentally, when this book popped up in my email from Penguin Books, I was (and am) enrolled in a free online science course, What A Plant Knows. Taking the course and reading When Plants Dream, reminded me of my early undergraduate days at an evangelical college in the Boston area, where my Biology 101 class was taught simultaneously in gospel-speak and the scientific method. I learned along the way that the scientific method was only included for accreditation purposes. I truly got into the spirit of the biblical interpretation of biology, egged on, out of class, by Bobby Dylan’s foray into the waters and fires of rebornation. Those lines from “Precious Angel” still kill me: Can they imagine the darkness….
Reading When Plants Dream felt like it was suffused in cultural darkness, or rather like it describes an escape from the darkness the Digital Age has wrought, rather than a committed movement toward any kind of enlightenment. In an era when going without the internet and text-messaging for a couple of weeks might lead most people to a hallucinogenic experience (in the vacuum opened up by the absence of electro-stim), Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer the reader an introduction to an experience with forces that, by the end, they describe as the potential salvation of the human race against itself. We’ve been hollowed out by technology, they contend, and we need a new consciousness, and ayahuasca, “a living intelligence,” can help with the quantum paradigm shift ahead.
When Plants Dream is a short, easy-to-read book (218 pages) that is sectioned into four parts: The Queen of the Forest (ayahuasca is felt as female); On Curanderismo (shamans and their link to an alternate cosmological consciousness); The Vine Spreads (ayahuasca’s impact on medicine, religion and the law); and, Ayahuasca Today and Tomorrow. It is a well-researched book, with many judiciously chosen excerpts from leading proponents of the altered consciousness experience, including Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire), Benny Shanon (The Antipodes of the Mind), Jeremy Narby (The Cosmic Serpent), and Michael Harmer (The Way of the Shaman), among many others. It’s rich, but intense reading, covering aspects of everything the subtitle of the book suggests — Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin discuss the Amazon Rainforest milieu in which the ayahuasca vine thrives. The authors remind us that the forest encompasses seven countries, including Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. It covers the size of the continental United States. It’s called the ‘world’s lungs’, due to the vast proliferation of photosynthetic foliage. Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim that there are still tribes in the forest who have not met ‘outsiders’, and that you could get lost in its lush underbelly and never be seen again.
What exactly is “the bitter brew”? Where does ayahuasca come from? The word comes from Quechuan, one of the oldest indigenous languages of the Amazon. The word breaks down into “aya,” meaning body, soul, or deceased; and “wahska,” meaning rope or vine. Thus, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin write, ‘ayahuasca’ is often translated as “vine of the soul” or “rope of the dead”. Its “double-helix-shaped curlicues” might vaguely attract the attention of a tourist also interested in the Human Genome Project (HGP) and its implications. You could see how a bit of mysticism would be built in to the stew-driven proceedings.
They write, “The psychoactivity of ayahuasca kicks in 30–45 minutes after ingestion” and “The brew is a famously intense purgative. For most, it causes shivering, sweating, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.” Reading this, I recalled a time I was carried out of a junior high school on a stretcher with severe food poisoning, double-helix turds coming from the out-hole, everything I’d ever eaten coming out the in-hole, and was having assorted gothic hallucinations. Holy shit, I wasn’t sure I could travel to the Amazon to experience the equivalent of said-same. Still, I read on. And, I guess, I probably would have tread on, if I’d gone there to relieve my blues.
Pinchbeck and Rokhlin admire the work of Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire. Pollan has boldly pronounced that our plants call the shots, and we obey. Did bears shit in the woods of Kazakhstan? You bet they did, and it’s a good thing, too, because they carried, in their turds, the first bitter apples from Central Asia all the way to Europe, sweetening as they came by natural selection, and delivering up from apple Eden what you might call the Almaty Whitey. Anyway, you can see how this symbiotic relationship works for Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, as they see ayahuasca not merely as an object to be devoured, but as a “kind of intelligence … trying to communicate with us, coming from the heart of nature.”
In the chapter, “The Yagé Organ,” the authors relate the strange ayahuasca correspondence of two famous American writers, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsbetg, who had separately ventured to Columbia to experience the psychedelic brew. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and Cities of the Red Night, who hailed from a pampered mighty whitey clan, trekked to the Amazon not long after he’d accidentally shot his wife dead in a famous William Tell debacle (immediately ending his heroine addiction). “Unable to kick his junk habit, guilt-ridden, crestfallen and junk-sick,” the authors write, “Burroughs traveled down to Colombia in search of yagé [ayahuasca]. He had heard that yagé was ‘the ultimate fix’ – as well as a miracle cure for [his heroin] addiction.”
Ginsberg traveled there years later and set up a correspondence with Burroughs that became The Yagé Letters (1953). Ginsberg describes his phantasmagorical experience to his favorite junkie,
I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard on pallet and porch rolling back and forth and settling finally as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death – got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes, like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe …
It kind of enriches one’s perspective on Ginsberg’s later Howl, in which he looks around and sees the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness.
If you go to the Amazon in search of ayahuasca, you’re going to want to find a curanderismo (shaman). “The word ‘shaman’ originally comes from the reindeer-herding nomads of the Siberian steppes,” the authors write. They’re social roles are ancient — they’ve been healers, mystics and even “dark” sorcerers. “Today,” write Pinchbeck and Rokhlin, “the various roles originally belonging to the shaman are divided into the functions performed by the artist, novelist, priest, scientist, doctor, psychologist and gardener.” But, paradoxically, these same modern cultural practitioners of altered states, are the ones most likely to hop on a plane to seek out forest healers to replenish their exhausted digitlized spirits. The pair claim, “There may be more ayahuasca practitioners now than ever before in history.”
To further clarify the role of a shaman in contemporary life, Pinchbeck and Rokhlin argue that the “archetypal path of the shaman resembles, in some ways, the hero’s journey outlined by Joseph Campbell … or like the training of the Jedi from Star Wars or the rebels from The Matrix.” The authors want to connect back to the counterculture psychedelic experiences of the 60s, and write, “According to the media hype, ayahuasca is for our time what LSD was for the 1960s: A mind-opening, catalysing, transformative agent that changes the world as it awakens and heals people.” But while this is true, the authors don’t emphasize enough the power and impact of the internet, and its paradigm-shifting influence on all aspects of our lives.
The third part of the book, The Vine Spreads, discusses the influence of ayahuasca, and the psychedelic experience in general, on other areas of our lives — medicine, religion, and law. “[T]here is increasing evidence that the methods used by curanderos have efficacy for many conditions that Western medicine cannot cure.” We seem increasingly more willing to trust such alternate approaches to healing chronic conditions — they cite breast cancer — that are resistant to Western medicine. And, “As we leave behind the antiquated parts of religions based on ancient text and received wisdom, we can access a new form of experiential mysticism based on the gnosis attained in visionary states of consciousness.” Laws, too, they suggest, are beginning to accommodate the growing desire for psychedelic experiences.
The authors like to play up the practical benefit of ayahuasca. “Shamanism is not essentially concerned with ‘enlightenment’ in the Buddhist sense or ‘beatitude’ in the Christian sense: shamanism is about knowledge – of the unseen worlds – and power, which can be used to heal, harm or transform.” The psychedelic experience should enhance your ordinary life somehow — maybe as depicted in the film Limitless. “The psychoactive effects of DMT [ayahuasca’s main compound] can be directly accessed by smoking a powdered extraction from the plants – the ‘business man’s trip’, which sends users on a 10-minute plunge into another reality that some find harrowing and others delightful.” What’s more, “Business Insider pronounces it ‘the latest craze among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’”. What could be more ominous or depressing? Imagine watching Jeff Bezos puke in some back alley junkie jungle to gain enlightenment during his lunch break. Hmph.
One interesting side note in the book is the allusion to the film Avatar, which the authors raise in the context of its background story. In the film, there is an important tribal tree called Eywa, which, according to Pinchbeck and Rokhlin is “uncannily close to ‘Aya’. The story told by the film bears more than a passing resemblance to one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history, caused by the fossil-fuel company Texaco, which merged with Chevron in 2000. In 1964, Texaco discovered substantial oil reserves in the remote Ecuadorian Amazon.” No lessons have been learned: destruction of the world’s lungs continues apace. A deleted scene from the film, “Eye of Eywa,” depicts a hallucinatory experience.
Full disclosure: I have no ayahuasca experience. However, in my undergraduate college years, I have eaten magic mushrooms and downed mescalin, and, under the influence of the shrooms went to a drive-in with some buddies and hallucinated to The Life of Brian and Altered States. I have grooved under the influence inside a cathedral. And I have had a multitude of naturally-occurring hallucinations, aural and visual. Though I don’t expect to get around to trying ayahuasca soon, I am open to the experience, and could certainly see how it might be beneficial, while also am keenly aware (following an opiated-pot session gone bad) of how these enlightenment things can go dark. The authors wisely urge full caution in their appendix how-to.
While Pinchbeck and Rokhlin offer plenty of factual information and anecdotes to help newbies and veterans of psychedelics decide if they want to seek out and try ayahuasca, there are many other places to go to understand the dimensions of the proposed self indulgence. There’s appropriate shamanistic music available to get the right ambiance going. More importantly, I found ayahuasca feed at Reddit very useful, as it has a lot of personal tales of encounters with DMT that are fresher than what a published book can offer. It also has a great deal of information about users, abusers and shamans.
Overall, When Plants Dream is a useful introduction to what Pinchbeck and Rokhlin claim is a “renaissance” in psychedelic experience-seeking. But maybe more important than anything, if maybe a bit too late, is the enthusiasm it expresses for seeing things through the ‘eyes’ of plants. We need that need that ‘view from the perspective of others’ now more than ever. Personally, I believe that if we must go extinct as a species, as we seem determined to do, that we head not in the direction of man-machine AI systems, but toward the development of photosynthetic people — chloroplasts added (along, if you don’t mind, a dash of THC), and at life’s end, instead of wasteful cremation, we smoke ‘em cause we got ‘em. Excuse me while I light my spliff.
Too much Cheech and Chong, I guess.
Book Review: In Defense of Julian Assange eds. Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler
By John Kendall Hawkins
Crikey, he gives them the shits.
Hillary once said — even before the 2016 election — “Can’t we just drone him?”
Maybe you’re thinking she was just joking, like Obama that time at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010, when he cracked that he’d take out the Jonas Brothers with a Predator drone strike, if they got grabby with his daughters. Laughter all around. Of course, the joke was on them, because there was no drone warfare program at the time, WINK. Obama wouldn’t acknowledge the existence of such drone usage until he zapped out Anwar al-Awlaki a year later, and his 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman, shortly thereafter, both Americans.
The MSM darn near bust a gut. (The joke’s been told over and over since. Punch line here.)
Julian Assange had warmed the Press up nearly a month earlier when he released the top secret “Collateral Murder” video into the wilds of the public imagination. You could hear all kinds of laughter from the gunship soldiers machine-gunning away at civilians, like Chuck Connors, Russian mole, in the film Embassy. Rat-a-tat-tat! Who knew the War on Terror could be so funny? You don’t even want to call The Hague and file a report, you’re laughing so hard.
And Assange followed up that gag with a bing-bang-boom fusillade: the Afghan War Logs (all those unreported haw-haw casualties); the Iraq War Logs had Abu rolling over in his graib, with laughter; Cablegate released all that global goss and started the Arab Spring (Tunisia 2011); the Guantánamo Files — so many Code Reds the bulls went insane; the Spy Files demonstrated “the industrialization of global mass surveillance” — what an effing hoot; the Syria Files made Assad shoot off laughing gas at the rebels; elites fell over themselves, like drunken clowns, when Assange published “the secret draft of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP)”; the Saudi Cables brought on the Curly Shuffle in Riyadh.
You almost couldn’t believe that a guy who one wag described as having had a “wild…Tom Sawyer-like” childhood could cause so much angst. Why, he even spent his early years in an honest-to-goodness Jumping Frog of Calaveras County atmosphere on a small island, called Magnetic. How could he be found so unattractive by so many? When he moved to mainland Oz for his teen years he became John Connor, where he had his whole future in the rearview mirror, and spent his time in MILNET “hacking Pentagon generals’ emails,” he tells Ai WeiWei in the new collection of testimonials and supportive documents that make up In Defense of Julian Assange edited by Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler.
Assange was determined to rip off the veil of the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) from an early age. And it’s another peculiarity that he, along with fellow Aussie John Pilger, have been so successful in penetrating to the core of the fascist heart that drives American foreign policy. Peculiar, because Australia, unlike America, has no Bill of Rights, so no fire in the belly for constitutional protections, and the press here is weak and getting weaker — thanks to the recent passage of “retention” laws that seem very much like the US Espionage Act that Assange will face in America. Yet, Pilger, in an interview with ex-CIA operative, Duane Clarridge, has totally exposed the ugly, roaring heart of Empire. Assange has laid out its blueprints.
So much has been written, movies have been made, you could make the case that Assange’s life is over-exposed, and that, ironically, this champion of personal privacy and governmental transparency, hasn’t had any real alone-time for quite awhile and has been swarmed with layers of surveillance designed to break his spirit. Outside the Ecuadorian embassy police spent years poised to pounce. Inside, there were microphones and cameras everywhere. “It was the Truman Show,” Assange is quoted in the book.
In the introduction to In Defense, Nils Melzer, a special UN rapporteur on torture, declared after visiting Assange in May at Belmarsh that:
In 20 years of work with victims of war, violence and political persecution I have never seen a group of democratic States ganging up to deliberately isolate, demonize and abuse a single individual for such a long time and with so little regard for human dignity and the rule of law.
Clearly, the State intends on having the last laugh. Sadists like their punch lines.
The great virtue of In Defense is that it collects all the controversial bits and pieces of Assange’s situation into one volume and mounts a fierce support for his personal and professional crises. A cogent introduction summarizes key segments of his current entrapment in a web of intrigue. There’s an impressive chronology of Wikileaks’ publications, from “Collateral Murder” to the Vault 7 CIA hacking tools. You wonder aloud if he’s more courageous than nuts, given the likely repercussions. The book is broken up into four parts: Expulsion; Confinement; the Internet, Censorship, and Scientific Journalism; and the Legacy of Wikileaks and Assange. A helpful point-by-point defense to Assange’s critics by Caitlin Johnstone lends focus. An appendix contains the superseding indictment for which he faces extradition to America.
Out of all that, In Defense attempts to answer three main questions: One, is Assange a terrorist or a journalist? Two, Is he a rapist? Three, What happens next? In Defense is unusual in that it transparently addresses all the questions Assange is likely to face in a courtroom, and summons forth the kinds of witnesses and evidence that will manifest in the proceedings. We hear from lawyers, technologists, whistleblowers, ex-spooks, radical feminists, government officials, and Assange himself — in a kind Open Source trialing of ‘discovery’ materials. The gambit in play appears to be that Assange is hoping to win people over to create a swelling base of support/protest once the secretive political trial begins.
Is Assange a terrorist or a journalist? As Tariq Ali notes in the introduction, “Assange and his colleagues made no secret of the fact that their principal subject of publication was the American Empire and its global operations.” Through his Wikileaks publishings, Assange has demonstrably established his intention to ‘document’ the dark agenda of Empire — and to oppose it. In this sense, he is an activist publisher, no different than, say, Ramparts, Counterpunch or Harper’s. But the material to support his opposition is primary documentation, procured through hacks and leaks. Like Socrates the “gadfly,” he wants people to make up their own minds. He sees himself as an Ethical Hacker, and an ethical leaker.
While he may not be able to use it as a defense tactic, WikiLeaks reminds me of the “necessity defense” that Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter successfully argued in 1987 at their trial for criminal trespassing that followed their disruption of CIA recruiting efforts on the campus of the UMass-Amherst. They were able to convince the court that their ostensibly ‘illegal’ actions were to stop bigger crimes from happening on foreign soil, in the name of Americans, who were never consulted. Thus, when a Kissinger can advise a Nixon that he doesn’t see why America should sit by while a Chile elects an Allende, when there’s a Duane Clarridge ready to fix the problem, people needn’t accept it as the American Way. Wikileaks is necessary.
Because they control the narrative arc of “The Global War on Terror,” the US government can characterize its antagonists any way it pleases. The Americans, deeply learning from the tactics of the Viet Cong who gave them the shits in ‘Nam, labelled al Qaeda (who they’d helped set up to give the Russians a taste of their own ‘Nam quagmire in Afghanistan), after 9/11, “unlawful non-state enemy combatants.” They didn’t wear pajamas, had no central command, and, thank Christ, were a wonderful reason to slap boots down in multiple countries in search of naked sleeper cells who might wake from their dogmatic slumbers and hate on America for her Human Freedom Project™.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Julian Assange and Wikileaks, as “a hostile non-state intelligence service.” This clown’s description of Wikileaks could include almost any left wing publication. Curiously, even the New York Times, a publication that has in the past spinached up its circulation by featuring stories based on Wikileaks documents, has turned on him. In April, the editorial board called him “a “foreign agent seeking to undermine the security of the United States through theft.” Pompeo would like to see Assange as akin to al Qaeda, then maybe honeypot him to some remote location, and, as Bobby Dylan would say, he could be caught without a ticket to the dance “and be discovered beneath a truck.” What, you think Empire is joking?
In a column for the volume, “The Naivete of Julian Assange,” Margaret Kimberly, a senior writer for Black Agenda Report, chides Assange for his ignorance of American domestic issues. Australia, while still dealing with aboriginal issues, has no legacy of slavery, and no Bill of Rights, and these deficits mean Assange lacks depth when it comes to American domestic political passions. She takes issue with a Tweet exchange he had during which “he questioned the need to fight the American Civil War” and seemed “unaware that the Confederacy started the war and steadfastly refused to end slavery.”
Nevertheless, she conceded, “His willingness to show us what war looks like or how trade agreements deprive millions of people of their rights make him an ally not just as a person but an ally of the principles Americans claim to care about.”
Her observations are a reminder that a lot of what’s going on is a bunch of white people fighting over power, with no sign that minorities are included in the conversation or will benefit from the process.
Is Assange a rapist? In Defense recounts the investigatory details that keep Assange tied to the Swedish justice system. The even reference a helpful YouTube animation that brings a viewer through the specious semi-allegations. The fact is that Assange would not be regarded as a potential rapist for ‘what happened’ in any other part of the world but Sweden, as the sex was consensual. He was investigated because a woman he slept with feared an alleged faulty condom might have allowed the transmission of an STD. As Caitlin Johstone writes in one of her mythbuster segments, “[One of the woman] admitted she had been ‘railroaded by police and others around her’” to pursue Assange. She reminds: He hasn’t actually been charged with anything in Sweden.
The US government doesn’t mind if Sweden takes its sweet ass time with its version of due process — the longer the better; they may even be behind the delays. Assange’s instincts were right about seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy to avoid extradition to the US; the chances are they were right for the same reason had he returned to Sweden. Meantime, as long as the ‘investigation’ goes incomplete, he gets to be painted by the MSM as a sexually aggressive hornball who intentionally ‘leaks’ without regard for his partner. As he’s been accused of by the CIA with his Wikileaks. This helps sell him as a predator. We got drones for that.
The breach of the servers at the DNC during the 2016 presidential campaign changed everything about how Assange has been perceived in the US.
The Obama intelligence community successfully sold Americans — through a compliant MSM — on the still unsubstantiated claim that the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election, foisting Trump on us, effectively paying us back, clown for clown, for giving them Yeltsin in 1991. Obama then wanted to connect Assange to the Russian mischief by claiming he either worked directly with them to hack the DNC, or else worked indirectly by posting to Wikileaks emails received from Russians.
But understated is how irate Obama was in 2013 when Assange sent an emissary to Hong Kong to help Edward Snowden avoid being taken by the CIA, after he was outed by the mainstream media as the greatest top secrets leaker of all time. Recall that Obama’s unprecedented forcing of the plane of a head of state to land in Austria when he thought Snowden was aboard. Virtually an act of war, and something that should have been condemned by the paper tiger United Nations, who exist to keep nation-states from crossing the line with each other..
As Kevin Gosztola points out in the book, “[T]he Obama administration realized in 2013 that it … could not prosecute Assange without exposing journalists at the Times or Washington Post to potential prosecutions for publishing classified information.” But all of that changes if Assange can be re-classified as an agent of foreign powers, a kind of enemy combatant, rather than a journalist. Thus, as Gosztola suggests, Democratic leaders started referring to him as an enemy. Joe Biden called him a “high-tech terrorist” and Diane Feinstein referred to him as “an agitator intent on damaging our government, whose policies he happens to disagree with, regardless of who gets hurt.” Oh, those condomnations.
The Russian-DNC-Guccifer thing has all the hallmarks of a set-up. Tariq Ali points out in the intro, “The finding that the DNC documents were hacked from seven separate accounts by agents of the Russian state rests on the assertions of private cybersecurity companies, CrowdStrike, Fidelis, and Mandiant, rather than of the FBI, which was denied access to the DNC server.” And as Craig Murray adds, “[The Mueller Report’s] identification of ‘DC Leaks’ and ‘Guccifer 2.0’ as
Russian security services is something Mueller attempts to carry off by simple assertion.” You gudda pwobwem wid dat?
It is still an open question whether emails taken from the DNC servers were the result of a hack or an insider thumb drive. Former NSA techie and whistleblower William Binney says it was a thumb. Craig Murray reminds the reader of In Defense that he personally met the thumb. Assange has named DNC insiders as sources for his cache. None of them were sought out by Mueller.
The IC says the Russkies did it and that the Guccifer 2.0 WordPress site from which Assange got some emails was a Russian site. But an email address can be acquired in seconds, a wordpress site set up in minutes, and the site populated with all kinds of blog posts — like the one that tells about how to spoof a foreign power during a hack. Even “Guccifer” has the smell of the kind of spook nomenclature that Edward Snowden describes in detail in his memoir Permanent Record — Gucci Lucifer = Guccifer. Get it?
Who knows what kind of an environment Assange will be immersed in when he comes in chains to the Land of the Free. The current business with Trump could make a conspiracy-fearist out of anyone. Yeltsin may not even be president by the time Assange is tried — what with whistleblowers climbing over each like a Ukrainian sitcom to put an end to corruption as we know it. You can almost see CIA analysts lounging in the coffee room, mooning over the days of yore, and wondering aloud, “I don’t see why we have to sit around and watch this country go banana republic due to the irresponsibility of its people. Who wants to whistle dixie next?”
In a world that doesn’t seem capable of giving a shit any more (see climate change), we have been blessed with some people willing to do the dirty work of keeping the plumbing of the people running. Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange, along with the many whistleblowers, VIPS, and voices of outrage and clarity that make up this volume, could be seen as a kind of superhero group in a future comedic movie: The Empire Turns Its Back. Assange as a Tom Sawyer figure — radicalized — the movie poster boasting: He didn’t just want a piece of the Empire, he wanted the whole Inshaallahllah.
Coming soon to a ‘reality-based’ cinema near you.
by John Kendall Hawkins
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster; when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“Are you sure that you can skin griz?
– line from film Jeremiah Johnson
Edward Snowden’s newly-released memoir, Permanent Record, is a timely and welcome entry into the current clown show debate on whistleblowing that has filled the Big Tent in Washington with hot air, old farts, and effete lions sitting around eating bon-bons and reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness — in French. Because, among other things, Snowden’s book strives to ignite an albeit self-serving ‘national conversation’ on whistle-blowing, how it differs from mere leaking, and why he qualifies for the protections afforded those who cop a whistle against government abuses. Indeed, not only is he arguing his own patriotic virtues, but he is calling on government-embedded “geeks,” like himself, to wake from their slogmatic dumber and pull a BogieBugle for the team. You want some liberty — or don’t you?
Snowden insists there’s a serious distinction between a whistleblower and a leaker. “A ‘whistleblower’ … is a person who through hard experience has concluded that their life inside an institution has become incompatible with the principles developed in…the greater society outside it, to which that institution should be accountable.” Snowden has often referred to Daniel Ellsberg, distributor of the Pentagon Papers, as a model for the type. And he sees himself in this vein. He compares this to leaking, which refers to “acts of disclosure done not out of public interest but out of self-interest, or in pursuit of institutional or political aims.” As Liberty might inquire, a la Bobby Dylan, “Are you willing to risk it all or is your love in vain?”
By Snowden’s rule, the recent anonymous hand-ringing CIA figure who dobbed Trump in to Congress is — well — still working and presumably, being anonymous, available for future leaks. He sounds more akin to what Snowden describes in the book as a politically-motivated ‘conscience’. These kinds of leakers tend to be practicing tradecraft (Snowden knows; he worked for the CIA), and can be likened to what Obama did — coyly denying the existence of drone warfare, while spending Terror Tuesdays personally selecting a new joker from his “disposition matrix” card deck to ‘take out’.
Writes Snowden, “By breathlessly publicizing its drone attack on al-Aulaqi to the Washington Post and the New York Times, the Obama administration was tacitly admitting the existence of the CIA’s drone program and its “disposition matrix,” or kill list, both of which are officially top secret. Additionally, the government was implicitly confirming that it engaged not just in targeted assassinations, but in targeted assassinations of American citizens.” Where was the whistleblower for that? Snowden seems to wonder. This is the lawlessness he just couldn’t hack any more.
But Permanent Record is far more than simply a personal appeal to be regarded as a hero in the public’s eye; it is a continuation of his alarm ‘call to arms’ against the serious “criminal behavior” of the US government and the catastrophic threat to democracy and privacy that its intentional actions have wrought with the rise of the surveillance state out of the ashes of 9/11.
To recap what’s at stake, according to Snowden: The American government claims ownership of the Internet. All of it. In America. In Europe. In Asia. And some day, inshallah, on Mars. They haven’t ‘officially’ announced it, but that’s how they’ve decided to proceed. They invented it. They developed its working protocols and technologies. They know more and more people will rely on access to it religiously (45% online now, according to Snowden), and they intend to keep people hooked on the sugar for life. First mass surveillance, then mass control. It’s monetized; it’s militarized; it’s locked and loaded with a full metal jacket of jingly algorithms. Not a gift to the world at all, like, say, America’s Deluxe Democracy for The Betterment of Mankind™.
Such a “Frankenstein” system is a long way from the Internet Eden Snowden claims we started out with. Far from merely describing a government on a temporary, and unconscious, surveillance sugar high, Snowden makes sure we understand to our roots that it’s much worse than that. “The president’s office, through the Justice Department,” he notes, “had committed the original sin of secretly issuing directives that authorized mass surveillance in the wake of 9/11.” Once that 9/11 serpent offered the US government that Apple of the Eyes, there was no turning back.
Snowden contends that we’re handing over more and more data, more of our lives, to the control of these unknown demigods in the clouds of Cyberspace. Who are they? Fantasists — all dem Deep State geeks, like Snowden, before he broke good, and Bush and Cheney, and Rove, saying shit like,
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
But they’re not at liberty to talk about it.
Snowden grew up reading Aesop’s Fables and Bulfinch’s Mythology and so is steeped in the stuff of heroes and gods and chimaera, parables and symbolism, deus ex machina, and the whole Lord of the Flies thing about wanton gods. But you can tell there’s a certain class of sleazester that grubs its way into national politics alluding to the glories of our shared classical Greco-Roman past (without which we Exceptionals would be nothing), dropping names and taking names, set on seeming and beaming. Types that make a more humble man, standing across the room seeing such seeming, cold-cock his fist as an instinct.
This God stuff really pisses Snowden off. You can tell by the way he introduces legends and mythology to the narrative, like he’s trying to speak their Dungeons and Terrorists language on some kind subtextual level that has sadistic overtones. My favorite bit comes when he comes up with a kind of origin story for his surname. He relates the tale of Rhitta Gawr, monster king of Wales, who took on and killed every king around him, cutting off their beards before he cut off their heads, and making a hair suit out of the scalpings. “Enraged at this hubris,” writes Snowden, “Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawr,” they fought and Arthur split Gawr in half with a sword on a mountain called …Snaw Dun….”
Rhitta Gawr would seem to represent American imperialism, and King Arthur would be the hubris-sapping champion of virtue and noble causes. Snowden is no Arthur, but he is invoking his spirit, his courage, his determination to slay tyranny, while at the same time making it clear he’s just an ordinary patriot. In fact, Snowden goes through some pains to recount his Mayflower heritage, family military history, and civil service roots. Sometimes he goes too far in the telling, as when he recounts the demise of his paternal ancestor who died at the hands of the British during the Revolution. He adds, seemingly gratuitously, “(Legend has it that they killed their POWs by forcing them to eat gruel laced with ground glass.)” Funny way to recall a relative’s death.
Speaking of family history, his most bizarre, and perhaps most revealing, tidbit of personal history is his mention of the founding of Fort Meade, Maryland, the location of NSA headquarters. The land on which the fort is built was once owned by Snowden ancestors. It was a plantation, but they “abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.” But there’s some strange, residual resentment. Snowden claims that the plantation was “expropriated” by the federal government to house Civil War soldiers. Head-spinning stuff.
Snowden emphasizes throughout his memoir that the terrorist-seeking, “surveillance capitalist” state is striving to have a permanent record of every human on the planet. All information going back perhaps even to birth — every phone call, email, text message, every trip taken, every purchase, medical data, service records, and a digital link to everyone you know. A permanent record without probable cause, waiting for you to be accused of a crime to be named later.
Snowden worked in a system in which, “[E]veryone’s information was being collected, which was tantamount to a government threat: If you ever get out of line, we’ll use your private life against you.” The government as goombah. A dystopia similar to the film Minority Report, but with algorithms, machine thoughts, replacing pre-cogs, cutting out the middle-seer.
Snowden spends considerable time reiterating his revelations of the specific secret government surveillance programs he shared with journalists beginning in 2013. He had originally intended to contact the New York Times, he writes, but remembered how they had quashed James Risen and Eric Lichtblau’s important piece on the Bush administration’s illegal wireless surveillance of Americans (revealed later by Snowden as NSA’s StellarWind program) that “well might have changed the course of the 2004 election” had it run. The story ran more than a year later to shrugs.
Instead, a second Bush/Cheney term allowed the NSA and CIA to expand their global surveillance programs. Snowden revealed further evidence of extra-Constitutional data-gathering. He writes:
“PRISM enabled the NSA to routinely collect data from Microsoft, Yahoo!,Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL, and Apple, including email, photos, video and audio chats, Web-browsing content, search engine queries, and all other data stored on their clouds, transforming the companies into witting co-conspirators.”
These criminal co-conspirators, above the law themselves, were treating everyone else as potential terrorists, sleeping cells of personality disorder that could erupt at any moment and reveal themselves by “keyword” Google searches for trouble, such as “Mr. Google, what ever happened to the photo and DNA evidence of bin Laden’s Abbottabad execution?”
There were also a couple of monitor-level programs that were mind-boggling and disgusting, such as XKeyscore, “which is perhaps best understood as a search engine that lets an analyst search through all the records of your life.” Everything. Anybody. Anywhere. While you were getting over the shock of that, Snowden pointed to another salubrious practice — LOVEINT — “in which analysts used the agency’s programs to surveil their current and former lovers along with objects of more casual affection—reading their emails, listening in on their phone calls, and stalking them online.” Creepy, and probably rife, considering that no one’s likely to get prosecuted, “because you can’t exactly convict someone of abusing your secret system of mass surveillance if you refuse to admit the existence of the system itself.” Secret men’s business. High five!
Most everyone agrees that 9/11 was the catalyst for the political acceptance of mass surveillance. The pollies conned the People into buying into the “limited” and “temporary” need for security-enhancing privacy annihilation hastened the transformation from intensified vigilance to full-blown panopticon intrusiveness. Snowden sees two main causes: one, the transfer of paper data to digital data, stored online; and, two, contracting. To get around agency hiring limits set by Congress, contractors, not counted as employees, were hired. Snowden calls them Homo Contractus. He was one. Said to be working for, say, Dell computers, but actually doing the work of the NSA or CIA.
Homo Contractus has become an evolving species of worker for the US government. It is perhaps the most dangerous development of all, given that such contractors are the eyes and ears of the surveillance machine. Suddenly, agency analysts go into early ‘retirement’, only to put up a quick WordPress business website and hang a shingle out as ‘consultants’, who then get re-hired by the system they retired from. When such consultants start working overseas, in places like the UAE, they are mercenaries who can hack away as they please. They bring their skill sets, toolsets, and target lists with them; the US government cannot stop them. It was no surprise to see The Intercept, a publication for whistleblowing revelations, being hacked from the UAE.
Permanent Record is an excellent read. There is a sub-text to the narrative that makes you wonder whether he is pulling your leg at times. And a few seemingly contrived anecdotes, such as the tiny play child Snowden has with mom about the need for taxes; another childhood exchange with mom where she explains the immorality of opening his sister’s mail; and, the chapter, “From the Diaries of Lindsay Mills,” which are, ostensibly, entries from his girlfriend’s (now his wife) diary. I was surprised that this chapter didn’t qualify her for a byline. But also, the section was so finely manicured that it felt like an inauthentic voice. In a novel that’s okay.
I have questions. Like why the push to get people to use the Tor Project? Snowden says that setting up a Tor server can help others in highly controlled societies (he cites Iran) reach out beyond their cyberwall. But the safety of Tor use was debunked years ago, when it was revealed US spooks had cracked its encryption and were on to users setting up bridge servers. But a bigger mystery to me was the inclusion of a reference to the bin Laden execution of 2011: “a dialysis patient shot point-blank in the embrace of his multiple wives in their lavish compound.” By all other reports, bin Laden was shot dead from the stairwell, there were no “multiple wives” embracing him, and the compound was anything but “lavish.”
Responses to what Snowden did in 2013 seem to locate his actions somewhere between heroic and traitorous. One political analyst, however, believes he’s beyond such easy good or evil. David P. Fidler, editor of The Snowden Reader, writes in his introduction to the volume that Snowden’s actions “disrupted the trajectory of political affairs and forced democratic societies to reconsider fundamental questions, the answers to which help define the quality of the democratic experience.” This is, of course, vague, and maybe entirely unhelpful, but does give an idea of his reception of the intellectuals who may influence his fate, should he ever return to America.
The picture Snowden paints in Permanent Record is so bleak and — like he alludes to — such a fall from more relatively edenic times that there seems little hope. However, he does, like Julian Assange, assert that one place to start fighting back is for people to implement encryption — sealing their documents and using a safe VPN. Snowden notes, with hope, “The year 2016 was a landmark in tech history, the first year since the invention of the Internet that more Web traffic was encrypted than unencrypted.” In addition, many other people, like Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, are pushing for the adoption of John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Meh. But the truth is, more radical actions may be required.
Personally, I believe we need a more benign, colossal catastrophe. For instance, I was reading the other day about the chances of Earth being spit in the eye by a giant hot loogie from the Sun. I read:
“In today’s electrically dependent modern world, a similar scale solar storm could have catastrophic consequences. Auroras damage electrical power grids and may contribute to the erosion of oil and gas pipelines. They can disrupt GPS satellites and disturb or even completely black out radio communication on Earth.”
Such damage, if it lasted long enough, might just be the best goddamned thing to happen to this planet in a long time. We’d talk more, face to face.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In the 1963 horror-thriller, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock wants his viewers to understand the world from the point-of-view of birds. Angry birds. Birds angry at humans. The question is: Why? Why are the birds angry? Why have they gone amok, seeding chaos, and what will be the solution?
My favorite shot in the movie comes when Hitchcock has a seagull floating over a town on fire and in full-flight panic — as if the bird were considering its work below, like a parent determining whether the administered spanking to a brat had been enough. And then another birds shows up in the frame, and another, and another, and then they all descend again. Why are they so angry?
Maybe part of the answer is attitude — hubris — or, as Bobby Dylan once sang, “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please.” In 1962, Rachel Carson released Silent Spring, a cataloguing of Humanity’s catastrophic treatment of the natural environment. Man was shitting his bed regularly and seemed proud of it. The ever-ironical Hitchcock was providing payback for the angered birds: Who’s luffing now?
In Timothy C. Winegard’s The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, the author goes one better than Hitchcock by substituting birds with mosquitoes and providing the creature’s point-of-view going all the way back to the Age of Dinosaurs. As far as Winegard is concerned, mosquitoes have been calling the shots throughout history in the animal kingdom, but especially with human beings, who, seemingly, have seen the decisions of virtually every ‘Great Man’ affected in pivotal moments by contact with the tiny disease-bearing predators.
The male mosquito does not bite and, according to Winegard, lives a Beautiful Life of procuring sex and nectar. When it’s time for the woman warrior to come looking for larval love, the males form a “swarm” tunnel into which she swoons, looking for a “heartbeat boy” on a version of “If You Are the One.” If you’re ‘lucky,’ one of these swarms might occur right over your head — and can extend “1000 feet into the air” — as you’re walking. Writes Weingard, “You are not paranoid, nor are you imagining this phenomenon. Take it as a compliment. Male mosquitoes have graced you with the honor of being a ‘swarm marker.’” Once the sperm is obtained, he says, all they need is blood — yours or mine. Winegard pictures a knocked-up mosquito landing on a patch of human skin. He provides almost an engineer’s description of the mechanical processes involved in biting into and drillin’ for blood:
She conducts a tender, probing, ten-second reconnaissance, looking for a prime blood vessel. With her backside in the air, she steadies her crosshairs and zeros in with six sophisticated needles. She inserts two serrated mandible cutting blades (much like an electric carving knife with two blades shifting back and forth), and saws into your skin, while two other retractors open a passage for the proboscis, a hypodermic syringe that emerges from its protective sheath….
On and on it goes, but, in short, she sucks your blood, and goes off to deposit her blood children in a pool of still water.
There is a cartoonish anthropomorphism that winds its way through the book. It’s clear that Winegard has fun referring to the principal lethal mosquito as General Anopheles — for almost 600 pages. Winegard has a military history background (but reads more like Jeremy Scahill than some swaggering apologist for the Pentagon), and his last book, The First World Oil War, was about the underlying fight to control petroleum during “the war to end all wars.” So, he’s comfortable dressing the mosquito in a general’s uniform and leading him into battle — always the victor, one way or another. General Anopheles is our hateful enemy.
“We are at war with the mosquito,” Winegard declares in his introduction. We’ve been at war for the whole shebang of human time. Almost half of the 108 billion humans who have lived in the last 200,000 years, perished by exposure to toxic mosquito bites. This is a staggering fact, if true (he’s extrapolating from data). But as Weingard indicates, “The biting female warriors of this droning insect population are armed with at least fifteen lethal and debilitating biological weapons against our 7.7 billion humans deploying suspect and often self-detrimental defensive capabilities.” Some of the maladies have been with us for a long time — malaria, dengue, yellow fever — weapons humans have struggled mightily to overcome.
Because Weingard approaches the history from a battlefront perspective involving Big Man confrontations, a lot of time is spent detailing how said maladies are used to advantage by various warriors. As so many battles Weingard describes seem to involve one side drawing the other into literal quagmires of infested mosquito zones, one imagines a briefing of some sort warning soldiers of what to watch for.
Walt Disney put out an especially effective film, The Winged Scourge, in 1943 that explains to soldiers the cycle of infection. (A soldier at the time, Dr. Seuss was also given an opportunity to spread the word to his mates and put out a pamphlet, “This is Ann…She drinks blood,” that likened malaria to a venereal disease delivered by some floozy — seemingly with green eggs and sore hams.) As Weingard repeats, over and over, malarial infections among soldiers had often-catastrophic consequences for fighters.
Winegard’s account of mosquitoes covers millions of years. The best approach to understanding how he proceeds and what the reader can expect is to provide a sampling in, say, four separate historical epochs. I found interesting his speculations on the disappearance of dinosaurs, his alternate take on the comings and goings of Ghengis Khan and the Mongols, Napoleon’s first use of biological warfare, and, probably most interesting (and controversial) of all, from an American’s point of view, the role mosquitoes played in New World slavery.
There was a time when we wondered about the extinction of the dinosaurs, and came to the conclusion, after much debate, that it was all about the fiery spitballs from outer space. That was a long time ago. These days time seems to be speeding up. Is it a natural fact, I wonder, or just old age? I think more about the extinction of great thoughts, The Sixth Extinction, and what, if any of it, mattered. Winegard argues that “that up to 70% of regional species were already extinct or endangered” by the time the asteroids hit. He credits the floozy from the oozy for the greater part of the kill, and we should be thankful: “Aided by her role in eliminating these top-tier dinosaur predators,” he writes, “mammals, including our direct prehominid ancestors, evolved and flourished.”
The Nazis admired Mongol tactics, writes Winegard; they were so similar to Blitzkrieg, encircling “their hapless enemies with breathtaking, unrivaled speed and ferocity.” But “the mosquito sucked dry their dreams of European subjugation,” and as “the mosquito helped prevent the west from being completely overrun. She harnessed her malarial might and held the reins of Mongol conquest, steering them away from Europe.” They returned East.
However, Winegard points out the greatest achievement of the long Mongol reign, stretching from Ghengis Khan to Kublai Khan, is that they opened up a permanent means of communication, transport and commerce between East and West, later called The Silk Road. “The Mongols were willing to allow traders, missionaries, and travelers to navigate their entire empire, opening China and the rest of the east to Europeans, Arabs, Persians, and others for the first time…These new land routes opened by Mongol military expansion created an immeasurably smaller global society by fusing two larger, previously distinct geographical worlds.”
Napoleon had his own Empire-building problems with mosquitoes. The African slaves he hoped to build a sugar-producing colony in Haiti with revolted in 1791. The natural defenses against malaria (such as sickle-cell anemia) that most slaves brought with them from Africa, argues Winegard, allowed them to resist and defeat the French soldiers sent to quell the resistance, but who had their own waterloo problems with mosquitoes. “Although the United States was the first to be born of revolutionary mosquitoes,” writes Winegard, “her battlefield prowess in support of the slave rebellion in Haiti forced Napoleon to sell his North American lands.” As he notes, the Louisiana Purchase that followed saw France give up a quest for American colonies and doubled the landmass of America overnight.
However, Napoleon learned from his defeat in Haiti. And at Walcheren, in 1809, Napoleon drew attacking and superior British forces into a marshland where they perished so miserably from contracting malaria that they couldn’t fight on. But, writes Winegard, Napoleon’s biological tactic also “ushered in the worst epidemic of malaria that Europe had ever seen.” When a defeated Napoleon was sent into final exile in 1815, the British ship Musquito guarded over him.
Perhaps the most compelling portion of Winegard’s narrative is his discussion of African slavery and how it changed everything in the Americas. He tells the story of NFL defensive back Ryan Clark, Jr. who fell ill on a team plane and was later diagnosed with sickle-cell disease. One in twelve African Americans have sickle cell trait, and, according to Winegard, “Advanced by natural selection, sickle cell is a hereditary genetic mutation passed on precisely because it was originally a net benefit to the people who carried it…The evolutionary design that nearly killed Ryan Clark was initially a lifesaving human genetic adaptation.” It provided Africans with the trait with almost total immunity from some forms of malaria.
According to Winegard, such immunity only made the African slave value grow, as it allowed colonists to not only settle in, especially in the Deep South, but to expand empires of cotton and sugar. He notes:
…African slaves were relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
The slave ships brought wi\th them the anopheles and aedes mosquitoes, which would prove sop lethal to both the colonial and indigenous peoples of the Americas. Winegard’s observations about the interplay of the mercantile development of the New World with slavery and malaria is long and fascinating.
Probably the only white hat Hero introduced in the narrative is the discovery, almost by accident, of quinine. Winegard writes, “Quinine was a New World treatment for an Old World disease. The disease itself, and its vectoring mosquitoes, were born of Africa and the Old World and were transported to the New World, where they flourished.” Coffee, chrysanthemums and, my favorite, gin and tonics, are all known to stave off malaria. And Big Pharma has some cures too. But mosquitoes and malaria are still very much with us.
The murderous disease-bearing mozzies are still with us 200 million years later, driving us nuts at night as we try to sleep, and making us wonder how that 190 million-old buzz, which has us slapping out, could be an evolutionary advantage rather than the taunt it seems. We are still fending them off the same old ways– with smoke, nets, drained swamps, and anti-disease medications. Not only do they still bring malaria in most parts of the world, they now carry the Zika virus, Eastern equine encephalitis, and many other potentially deadly viruses. Scientists continue to remind us that we are overdue for a mosquito-borne pandemic, with amplified effects due to climate change extending breeding seasons.
Some scientists believe that the succubus’ quarter-of-a-billion years reign is enough and it’s time for things to change. Enter CRISPR and the notion that we can genetically modify “humanity’s most dangerous predator.” But there are worries: we’d be messing with nature; we can’t yet guarantee something disastrously unforseen wouldn’t occur. What if we somehow — in our Lamarckian chutzpah — made our most dangerous predator stronger? Or created a real-life Jurassic Park (amber-bound mosquitoes do exist)?
I have mixed visions of Octavia Butler’s “Blood Child;” the recent movie Mosquito-Man (which sucked); and being shown as a child how to make a mozzie pop by squeezing the skin around their proboscis as they sucked — until they exploded, like a gory scene from Scanners. They bring out our latent sadism.
The Mosquito is a fascinating account of a primordial predator — seen almost-empathetically, by Winegard, through the lens of Great Man theory. It is unique in that sense. But it is also overwhelming in its comprehensive claim that mosquitoes were lurking in so many watershed moments of history. You follow his Hum-eric narrative, wowed by the endless stream of Anopheles triumphs that Winegard cites. Then, frankly, scepticism sets in. You seek out secondary sources, and discover that his claims are largely valid. It seemed, at first, a narrative gimmick — the Life and Times of General Anopheles — but ends up a revelation; Hitchcock’s birds eye view..
The Mosquito is yet another reminder to the reader that we live in a world where we don’t really call the shots and never have. We like to tell ourselves sagas of how Men Have Come Seen and Conquered, and sit around vain bonfires telling tales of our Darwinian conquests. But Winegard replaces our historical agents — our manly Caesars and Odysseuses — with female mosquitoes, buzzy little valkyries with a high-pitched nasal drawls. Imagine a civil war won not so much by guns and stratagems, but by reactions to diseased mosquito bites and the requirements of care to ensuing sickness. As Winegard reminds us, half of all human beings who have ever lived suffered “mosquito-inflicted deaths.” Heil Hit-ya, General Anopheles — thwack!
By John Kendall Hawkins
Back in the ‘70s, when I first learned to write poetry in earnest, I lived in a small country village with two boarding schools. One for the very rich; one for the middle class. At the rich school, where I was a scholarship student, we were favored with lectures from the likes of Dick Gregory and Dan Rather, while we heard that students at the other school were doing things like smoking reefer and watching A Clockwork Orange backwards. We listened to toccatas and fugues in our intimate chapel, while the others brought to life the J. Geils Band. We were an all-boys school; they were coed. On Saturday evenings, I would lay on my back on a circle of lawn and gaze up at the cosmos, while they smashed pumpkins, dated, and drank until they saw stars. Two worlds: two belongings: two visions of “Singing in the Rain.”
My English teacher liked my writing and told me his best advice was to read everything voraciously; and he set me up to correspond with a New York writer, Nat Hentoff, who sent communiques of encouragement to me occasionally. I was restless, insomniac; my mind was full of ideas and lyrical wisps that were sometimes ‘elegant’ visual solutions to problems nobody wanted to hear about. I used to take long melancholy walks at night, through pungent apple orchards, look up through autumn maple leaves lit by a street lamp, recall lines from Frost, think heavy cosmological stuff. In short, I was a struggling poet.
Reading New Yorker magazine, I came across the poetry of Charles Simic, and was immediately blown away by the juxtapositions of minimalistic imagery and an ironic humor that I didn’t quite understand but which made me chuckle. There was humanism that laughed at itself, that seemed to peek out at me from the shadows of what could have been a bleak pessimism. His images were feisty, sometimes like a comic frame in words. I was reading T.S. Eliot for the first time and especially liked his shorter more accessible stuff — like Preludes. I read a vision of human misery similar to Simic’s, but without the humor.
For instance, I read, from Prelude II:
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
I re-read the finality, the heavy chords of the last line. Laughter, not so much. Eliot was steeped in the Anglican, urban fatalism, the kind that sends you genuflecting early in the chapel before the others arrive, and which seemed like a deep, vain thrombosis that crept up toward his heart his entire career.
Charles Simic, on the other hand, can bring you to a similar place of darkness and simplicity, but the illumination that follows is bound in a conceit that is not yet ready to give up. Take these opening lines from his early poem “Butcher Shop,” for instance:
Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.
Simic’s poem is potent, driven — an escape toward freedom; The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen, rather than the bulldozers of Auschwitz. (I love Eliot, by the way.) It could have gone South: Like the light in which the convict digs his own grave. Say.
Charles Simic has been asked a lot about his past over the years. His English, though coherent and smooth, is delivered as a second language speaker. He is a Serb from Belgrade. He spent his early childhood there during World War II. Bombing and destruction eventually led his family to emigrate — first to Paris, then New York, and, later, Chicago. “Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom,” he writes in an essay, “The Prisoner of History,” at NYRB in 1984.
He expected to become a painter, rather than a poet. But love of women drove him to try his hand at ‘pick up’ lines. “When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems,” he says in an interview. “I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.” One can almost see her pounding heart.
Lots of male poets and painters would attest to this romantic french benefit — a beauty modelling naked under the sun in the shade of the mind’s eye near the blue lapping sea. One can see why Simic admired Byron’s Don Juan. In an early untitled prose poem from his collection, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, he describes his first Romantic intersection, with the help:
There was a maid in our house who let me put my hand under her skirt. I was five or six years old. I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it. She would crawl under the table where I had my military fort and my toy soldiers. I don’t remember what was said, if anything, just her hand, firmly guiding mine to that spot.
And out of the war years poetry was soon born — boom, boom, boom.
Simic’s poetry has won the Pulitzer Prize (1990) and has been a finalist twice more. If he’s not careful, he might win the Nobel prize one day — his stuff’s that good. In his just released collection, Come Closer and Listen, Simic continues to develop his surrealist survival technique. His images are as sharp as ever, the humor is intact. He cares about the right thing — his poetry — and is not so anxious to hold dear positions of cultural power.
The three qualities I have enjoyed most from reading Come Closer are his humor, his characterizations, and his healthy metaphysical relationship with things unknown. His humor is founded on the wry twists of his surreality, playful surprises, and modest language that overachieves with its humanity. Sometimes it’s so simple that you don’t fully ‘get it’ until you’re moving your eyes to the poem on the next page. “Astronomy Lesson” feels like that:
The silent laughter
Of the stars
In the night sky
Tells us all
We need to know
Similarly, and complementing his winky feel for space is his wry take on time, in “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”:
No one has caught yet.
Space and time, out of which we are ‘evolutionary’ constellations of consciousness, seems to mock us, lugubriously, from the dark side of our own minds.
Simic fancies John Keats’ expressed notion of “negative capability” in his poetics — what Simic calls “the uncertainty of certainty,” of living within the means of what’s knowable (or not), without giant leaps of faith across event horizons, which can leave you absorbed, not in light, but in total darkness. Like the fellow in “Butcher Shop,” Simic uses available light to dig out of the jail of constraining concepts. In his essay, “Negative Capability and Its Children,” he observes, “We could … bring in recent political history, all the wars, all the concentration camps and other assorted modern sufferings, and then return to Keats and ask how, in this context, are we capable of being in anything but uncertainties.” (83)
In contrast, Eliot’s characters proceed through a symbol-laden, even Jungian suffering leading to a pre-supposed “objective correlative.” Simic’s characters don’t seem capable, by disposition, of drowning in an oversaturated consciousness of the world. Like Simic’s childhood itself, Simic’s characters keep on ‘playing,’ even as the bombs of chaos fall all around them. There is a toy poem to play with — in everything.
Simic’s characters thrash in the world, “Like that crazy old woman / With something urgent to say / You couldn’t make sense of.” We’re all on the road to Babel, and if not careful, of being inexpressive selves and inscrutable. This poetic recognition is all the ‘symbolism’ Simic needs. Again in “Negative Capability,” he writes, “The goal in surrealism as in symbolism is a texture of greatest possible suggestiveness, a profusion of images whose meaning is unknown and unparaphrasable to a prior system of signification.” (88) In other words, there is no real translation.
Similarly, in “Sunday Service,” one of my favorite Simic characters, having briefly considered, in three stanzas, a Sunday world seemingly hard at work ridding itself of sin (even a dog is chasing a cat up a tree for religious purposes), our character tells us:
Descartes, I hear, did his best philosophizing
By lazing in bed past noon.
Not me! I’m on my way to the dump,
Waving to neighbors going to church.
Classic Simic. Junk as sin, sin as junk. Out it goes, on Sunday morns.
But he can go further, getting downright farcical with joy, as in the romping “Bed Music.” Four quick stanzas: one to set the scene — lovers in a worn-out bed; another to express the noisy musicality of the coital enterprise; another to introduce mad-driven neighbors downstairs, and then the coup de grâce stanza:
That was the limit!
They called the cops.
Did you bring beer?
We asked the men in blue
As they broke down the door.
If Eliot’s Preludes are Chopin, then Simic goes all Liberace at times. He just doesn’t care.
Without hanging a moral compass around the neck of his perceiving subject, unbalancing his vision like a phenomenological albatross, Simic allows the frame that is seen to be seen for what it is — whatever values (moral, aesthetic) are self-evident and don’t require the intervention of prejudice. Such is the case with his wonderful poem “Among My Late Visitors”:
There is also a cow
Whose eyes the soldiers
Took out with a knife
And lit straw under its tail
So it would run blind
Over a minefield
And thereafter into my head
From time to time
I’ve never considered ‘war’ that way before. Going through Simic’s poems is like going through a mindfield full of IEDs (improvised expressive devices), if you’ll forgive the pun.
There is an upbeat metaphysics at work in Simic’s crooked world, things don’t quite line up right, and he doesn’t even have to try to ‘find’ oddball juxtapositions — they’re just there, and he just needs to wait and observe, as he did with a “Cockroach” early in his career, where he provokes the reader by saying he doesn’t see cockroaches the same ‘icky’ way he presumes the reader does. It’s a playful tactic that makes the reading a kind of agent provocateur’s test.
In one interview, he tells J.M. Spalding of Cortland Review, “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs.” It would still be surrealism in most other places, but, uh, in America, the road of excess doesn’t necessarily lead to the palace of wisdom — at all. He continues, “Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves.”
In “Metaphysics Anonymous,” homeless, downtrodden truth-alkies seek Salvation:
A storefront mission in a slum
Where we come together at night
To confess our fatal addiction
For knowledge beyond appearances.
…we line up with bowed heads
For coffee and cookies to be served.
For Simic, there are only these places we go, lost, to stand up and attest to our powerlessness before our addiction, and tell our story, often poignant, of how the search for Truth has torn apart our lives and left us ruined. People holding up their 3-month or 6-month badges of sobriety smiling, full of genuine support, knowing, though, it’s just a matter of time before they fall off the wagon again — into the gutter, where all truths run in the end.
Simic decided to duck out of re-upping for another year as America’s Poet Laureate in 2008. He noted humorously: “It was just too much. I had at least 50 or 60 interviews and countless number of other things I had to do. I would receive 30 emails every day relating to poetry. It’s enough to make you hate poets and poetry. Enough! You know? I want to do other things.”
He is now a Professor Emeritus in English at the University of New Hampshire, where he is involved in the MFA program. At work and life in a New England setting.Under the table, still playing with toy soldier revolutionaries, being manhandled by beauty. Lucky bastard.
Note: A well-produced short documentary of his life can be found here. Simic reading his “Hide and Seek,” from Come Closer and Listen can be found at Poets.org. “Light Sleeper” and “The Old Orphan” from the collection are also there.
Rachel Maddow: ‘Lock him up!”
Sean Hannity: ‘Lock her up!’
Bruno Sammartino, Killer Kowalski, Professor Tanaka, The Fabulous Moolah, The Sheik, Haystacks Calhoun, Chief Jay Strongbow, Ivan Koloff “The Russian Bear,” Billy Graham, Colonel Ninotchka, and The Progressive Liberal. Turnbuckle nose jobs, sleeper holds, flying splats, head chairs, an occasional Curley Shuffle, tag-team terror, caged grudge, and emcee Vince McMahon. Hatred never had so much fun wrestling with Truth. Until Now. Entering the ring, none other than WWE Hall of Defamer, the one, the only, Donald J. Trump, aka Saint Grobian, champion of the deplorables, who onced “schlonged” Hillary Clinton, and is feared for his legendary hold, The Pussy Snatch.
According to Rolling Stone staff writer Matt Taibbi, this is the state of affairs in national politics today — a Spectacle of bizarre performers flipping each other in the public arena, to the titillation of the rabid masses, like some scene from the classic movie, A Face in the Crowd. They are divided Left and Right, polarized bears wrassling over baby seal meat on the world’s last floe, united by their choreographed hatred for each other. The End of the World as Reality TV. Great ratings. Matt Taibbi calls it all Hate Inc. — his new book.
Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity face off on the cover of Hate Inc. Loud Democrats versus Loud Republicans. Of the two, Taibbi takes issue with Maddow more because he sees her as “smart, quick, and funny,” and should know better than to slog the slimey end of Trump and Russiagate the way she has. Meanwhile, “The Sean Hannity Show is an uncomplicated gruel of resentment, vituperation and doomsaying,” writes Taibbi. Both adhere, to varying degrees, to what Taibbi calls The Ten Rules of Hate, which include notions like, “There are only two ideas,” “Root, don’t think,” “No switching teams,” “The other side is literally Hitler,” and in fighting that other side everything is permitted. For Taibbi, they are two faces of the coin of the fucked-up Realm.
We’ve been at the bread and circuses so long in America that it’s now difficult to conjure up the sad, but heady, days of catharsis that followed Dick Nixon’s TV resignation in 1974. Goodbye to ‘dirty tricks’ and, soon enough, the Apocalypse Then of Vietnam. We weren’t happy with Gerry Ford’s pardon of Nixon, but we managed to sublimate our bile through Chevy Chase’s regular depictions of Ford falling over himself on SNL. With Ralph Nader, Noam Chomsky, Woodward and Bernstein, pushing to keep the Bastards honest, and with peanut farmer president Jimmy Carter, our dove among the warhawks, we felt we were moving toward our manifest destiny again. And the locusts sang that sweet mellow dee….
And then, lo, what rock through yon window breaks? Carter announces he has had lust in his heart for “other” women and admits so amidst all the pink bunnies spread out all over the place in the pages of Male Gaze Magazine (November 1976). Next thing you know, the press went berserk, and every time people started to forget about bunnies, and get back to kumbaya in the Middle East, John Updike put out another goddamned Rabbit book. Then Carter got into trouble again in 1979 when a naked bunny on the loose came swimming at his canoe with enough apparent purpose that he thwacked at “her” with a paddle. It was, all in all, a decade down the rabbit hole.
Well, it really wasn’t much of a hop to get from Carter’s hypothetical transgressions of the heart to Bill Clinton’s days of jizzy improvisation in the White House, a certain intern playing “Blind Willie Leaps” on his sexaphone, and all hell breaking loose inside the DC beltway (where belts never stay up long anyway) — the media frenzy, the special counsel, the calls to impeach, the partisan poli-dicking. The Clinton Show opened up a whole new can of whoopee-honkytonk. Anita Hill, Judge Thomas, pubic hair. “What is is.” You felt you were tripping. And some openly wondered how many people in Bosnia and Aftica were being taken out by cruise missiles to “detract” from the rocket’s red glare of Willy’s jism cycling the news back home.
Then after the palette-cleansing events of 9/11 wiped the smirks off our faces in a hurry and turned a whole lot of us into overcompensating conspiracy-fearists for about ten years, here we are, back in the criminal slime of celebrity sexual promiscuity. Now, with Russians.™ The phenomenon that is Donald J. Trump. He’s not only lusted after bunnies, he’s grabbed them by the pussy. Now we’re trying to figure out whether he grabbed Putin by the pussy, or if it was the other way around. And that’s all anyone cares about in America. Climate change? Nyet. Late stage capitalism? Nyet. Overpopulation? Nyet. Fashionable fascism? Nyet. Multiverses and the Singularity? Nyet. Welcome to America in 2019.
Hate Inc. brilliantly captures the current circus atmosphere and explores its roots in the political, economic and technological transformations of the last half century. Taibbi writes, “The Soviet Union let us all down by collapsing under the weight of its sociopathic leadership and systemic corruption, removing both itself and global communism as a functional adversary.”
That sucked. White Hat now alone in the spotlight, exceptionalism and neoliberalism looking more like Don Quixote than Sir Lancelot. So the Russkie demons had to be resurrected: Thank God Putin’s an asshole; it gives us something to work with. They gave us Sputnik; we gave them Stuxnet; now it’s their move.
Taibbi trots out his linguistic mentors early — Noam Chomsky and Hunter S. Thompson. One can see both at work in Taibbi’s style. He’s always keenly aware of the so-called “propaganda machine” that Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent, argues is behind all news production, the hidden vested interests, the profit-driven requirements of being in business, pandering to a readership. However, Taibbi’s prose is anything but academic; rather, it follows in the hip, snarky tradition of Hunter S. Thompson that is appropriate for a staff writer at Rolling Stone magazine.
The Russian disappointment aside, Taibbi locates the beginning of the corruption of good, solid journalism in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Far from seeing the end in Nam as a military loss, let alone a moral loss, American war hawks came away angry that ruptures in the narrative — Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers, Sy Hersh’s My Lai account — had undermined and betrayed the so-called Noble Cause. “The post-Vietnam story blamed an ‘excess of democracy’ for the loss,” writes Taibbi, “especially in the media: loserific criticism of our prospects for victory undermined the popular resolve to keep fighting a winnable war.”
The Excess of Democracy silliness sounded ominously Kissinger-esque. He’d said of events in Chile, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” It was as though the hawks and chickenhawks had replaced ‘communism’ with ‘democracy’ and Chile with America. New policy followed: Control the Messenger. One ex-CIA operative, Duane Clarridge, pardoned for his crucial role in the illegal anti-Sandinista campaign in Nicaragua, was shockingly candid with John Pilger about the fascist engine of American imperialism — “get used to it world,” it’s who we are.
This ‘national security’ attitude became policy toward journalists from Nixon onward, ratcheted up incrementally through the administrations until after 9/11. You could argue that the national political beat became little more than the propaganda arm of the War on Terror. As Glenn Greenwald and others have repeatedly charged over the years, the national press corps are made up of little more than stenographers being fed unattributed, often-uncheckable information.
Taibbi believes that part of the reason for the change in spirit that came over journalists is class-related. He writes, “…[B]ack in the day, reporters often came from a different class than the people they reported on in government. He relates the story of old school journalist Walter Winchell who was asked if he worked as a reporter: “He supposedly joked in reply: ‘Yeah, but don’t tell my mother. She still thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.’”
That changed after Nixon and Watergate, he recounts. “Ironically, All the President’s Men, which made reporting glamorous, was about adversarial journalism. But the next generation of national political reporters viewed people in power as cultural soulmates because, at least socially, they were.” Suddenly, they were in a Georgetown nightclub together, grooving on Mose Allison tunes.
The economics of journalism has also played a role in the changes Taibbi alludes to. The media mergers of the ‘80s and ‘90s downsized the market, resulting in fewer outlets for news, which, combined with the ascension of the Internet in the late 90s began to affect revenue streams, especially for the press. Eventually, Taibbi argues, this began to affect news coverage and led to the transition to the current partisan bickering that represents contemporary coverage of events, especially national politics. It’s all come together like never before under Trump.
Taibbi observes, “Few seem troubled by the obvious symbiosis between Trump’s bottom-feeding scandal-a-minute act and the massive boom in profits suddenly animating our once-dying industry (even print journalism, a business that pre-Trump seemed destined to go the way of 8-track tapes, has seen a bump in the Trump years).” Trump often refers to the “failing” New York Times, and categorizes other mainstream media outlets as purveyors of “fake news,” but such attacks have done wonders for their bottom lines.
As the Peabody Award-winning Linda Ellerbee used to say, closing out her NBC Weekend stints in the 1970s, “And so it goes.”
Now that Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress last week ended as flat as a whimpering bagpipe, instead of the big bang smoke that Democrats were hoping to get from Mueller’s mushroom cloudy brain to fuel impeachment proceedings, we move in our spectacle to the last wrassling encounter on the programme. In this corner, Saint Groban, whose own government distrusts him with the country’s top secrets. And in the other corner, Julian “Wicked Leaks” Assange, wearing his fearful torn-condom mask, who the Trump administration wants to prosecute for espionage and journalism. A grudge match. The Pussy Snatcher versus The Sleepy Hacker. An atmosphere of pure hatred. Applause. The bell rings, we salivate.
Counterintuitively, The Whorehouse Pianist plays Rachmaninoff, musical pearls rolling before runting swine. Hunter S. Thompson would have loved it, dropping down another shot of whiskey, and heading upstairs for another round.